Voter Registration in a Digital Age
Millions of Americans register to vote each year, and millions more update their registration information. Between 2006 and 2008, states received more than 60 million voter registration forms, most on paper. This labor-intensive paper system swamps election officials, burdens taxpayers, and creates a risk for every voter that human error—a misplaced form, a data entry slip—will bar her access to the ballot box.
A comprehensive national study found that registration problems kept up to three million people from voting in 2008. A paper-based system may be the best the 19th century had to offer, but it is out of step with the higher-tech approach in other spheres of American life, and the approach in other democracies.
Fortunately, paper-based voter registration has quietly begun to go the way of ticker tape. Now at least seventeen states electronically transfer voter registration data from Departments of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to election authorities; in some states, the process is entirely paperless; in others, officials use paper forms solely to obtain some information, like signatures.5 Secure online voter registration is now available in seven states, and is under development in at least five more. In the past two years alone, eleven states have developed paperless systems, and many others have begun to consider reform.
This report is the first in-depth survey of these registration innovations—"automated" voter registration, in which government offices like DMVs collect and transfer voter registrations electronically, and online voter registration, in which citizens submit voter registration applications over the Internet. Based on documentary research and interviews with election officials in fifteen states, this report explains how paperless voter registration works, reviews its development, and assesses its impact.
The bottom line: paperless voter registration yields substantial benefits for voters and governments alike.
1. Paperless voter registration is cost-effective and saves states millions of dollars each year
- It cost Arizona less than $130,000 and Washington just $279,000 to implement both online voter registration and automated voter registration at DMVs.
- Delaware’s paperless voter registration at DMVs saves election officials more than $200,000 annually on personnel costs, above the savings they reaped by partially automating the process in the mid-1990s. Officials anticipate further savings.Our paper-based voter registration system may be the best the 19th century had to offer, but it is out of step with the higher-tech approach in other spheres of American life.
- Online and automated DMV registrations saved Maricopa County, Arizona over $450,000 in 2008. The county spends 33¢ to manually process an electronic application, and an average of 3¢ using a partially automated review process, compared to 83¢ for a paper registration form.
2. Paperless voter registration is more accurate and reliable than paper forms
- Officials consistently confirm that paperless registrations produce fewer errors than paper forms and reduce opportunities for fraud.
- A 2009 survey of incomplete and incorrect registrations in Maricopa County, Arizona found that electronic voter registrations are as much as five times less error-prone than their paper-based counterparts.
3. Paperless voter registration increases voter registration rates
- DMV voter registrations have nearly doubled in Washington and Kansas, and increased by even more in Rhode Island.
- Seven times as many South Dakotans submitted voter registrations at DMVs after the state implemented an automated system.
- Registration rates among 18-24 year-old citizens rose from 28 to 53 percent after Arizona introduced online and automated registration.
Given the clear benefits, it makes sense that more and more states have begun to adopt paperless registration. Although Congress is currently considering reforms along these lines, this paper focuses on state-based reform efforts. The online provides additional state-by-state information. In a field often subject to partisan bickering, it is noteworthy that state voter registration innovations have earned praise from Republicans and Democrats alike, as well as from election officials and agency personnel. Paperless voter registration is the wave of the future.
Additional Appendices with Detailed State Profiles
About the Author
Christopher Ponoroff is a Pro Bono Counsel in the Democracy Program, working on voter registration and election issues with the support of Shearman & Sterling LLP. He received his J.D. from Stanford Law School and his B.A. from Tulane University. He has worked as a language assistant at the Maison d’Education de la Légion d’Honneur, and as a summer associate at Shearman & Sterling.
About the Editor
Wendy Weiser directs the Brennan Center's work on voting rights and elections and is Deputy Director of the Democracy Program. She has authored a number of reports and papers on election reform; litigated ground-breaking voting rights lawsuits; and provided policy and legislative drafting assistance to federal and state legislators and administrators across the country. She is a frequent public speaker and media contributor on election reform and democracy issues. She has also served as an Adjunct Professor of Law at NYU School of Law. Ms. Weiser received her J.D. from Yale Law School and her B.A. from Yale College, and she clerked for Judge Eugene H. Nickerson on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York.