Voter Registration in a Digital Age: 2015 Update

October 27, 2015

America’s outdated voter registration system needs improvement. As technology has advanced, a growing number of states are using 21st century methods. The Brennan Center spent the last two years examining modern voter registration systems — determining how they work, why they’re beneficial, and how states implement them.

This report highlights experiences from the 38 states using electronic and/or online registration. Modernization boosts registration rates, increases voter roll accuracy, and saves money, the study found. Exciting new developments in 2015, like automatic voter registration, have the potential to take these improvements even further. Other states should embrace these systems without delay.

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Executive Summary

America’s voter registration system needs improvement. In 2008, nearly 3 million registered voters could not vote because of problems related to their voter registration record. A study only of in-person voters from the 2012 election similarly found that millions of voters experienced registration problems at the polls.

These problems stem from our country’s outdated system of registering citizens and updating the voting lists. In 2015, we use computers and tablets to chat with friends overseas, but too many states still rely on ink and paper to sign up voters.

Over the last two decades, many states have improved how they register voters, moving voting lists from reams of paper to electronic databases. Today, as technology has improved, a growing number of states and localities are using 21st century methods to address voter registration challenges by reducing reliance on paper forms.

The Brennan Center spent the last two years questioning over 70 election officials who oversee modernized voter registration systems in states across the country. Our goal: Determine how these systems work, why they are beneficial, and how states implement them.

This report highlights experiences from states using electronic registration and online registration — two of the most popular modernized methods of registering voters. Electronic registration requires that data collected at a government agency — in most cases, a department of motor vehicles office (DMV) — is sent to election authorities digitally, instead of relying on paper forms. Online registration allows voters to submit their application over the Internet.

Here’s what we found:

  • States continue to implement modernized voting systems. A total of 38 states now have electronic registration, online registration, or both. Electronic registration is available in 27 states, and 26 states have online options. In 2010, when the Brennan Center first studied these systems in depth, 17 states electronically registered voters, and only 6 allowed citizens to sign up online. As states continue to adopt modernized techniques, they speed up the process of registering voters.
     
  • Modernization boosts registration rates. In one data sample, 14 of 16 states with electronic registration saw sustained or increased registration rates at DMV offices through the 2014 election. For example, since Pennsylvania eliminated paper registration at DMVs in 2005, registration rates at the DMV have more than quadrupled. Online registration is also popular with voters. In 11 of the 14 states that had online voter registration in 2012, online registrations accounted for more than 10 percent of all new sign-ups between 2010 and 2012.
     
  • Electronic and online registration increase voter roll accuracy. Election officials in almost every state interviewed reported that both electronic and online registration made their systems more accurate because staff no longer need to interpret illegible handwriting or manually enter voter information, thus reducing the chances for errors.
     
  • Modernized voter registration systems save money. Not all states attempted to track cost savings, but of the 29 states that reported they did, there was unanimity that electronic and online registration reduces costs. Washington State, for example, saves 25 cents with each online registration.

With these improvements, some states continue to innovate and find new ways to sign up even more voters. For example, in the last year, there has been momentum in favor of what is sometimes called “automatic registration” or “opt-out registration.” This groundbreaking modernization changes how electronic registration works at DMV offices. Oregon became the first state to pass this reform in March, and California followed shortly thereafter this October. Soon, eligible citizens in these two states will be registered to vote unless they decline — as opposed to the usual system that keeps citizens off the rolls unless they expressly indicate their desire to register. Automatic registration is made possible by the electronic maintenance and transfer of voter registration information, but takes it a step further by shifting the burden of registering voters onto the government.

In June 2015, Hillary Rodham Clinton praised Oregon’s system, calling for universal, automatic voter registration for all citizens when they turn 18. Also in June 2015, New Jersey’s legislature passed an automatic registration bill, but it is far from clear whether Governor Christie will sign it into law. If New Jersey joins California and Oregon in implementing automatic voter registration, 16 percent of the nation’s population will live in states with automatic registration.There have also been two automatic registration bills introduced in Congress, and at least 15 other states, plus Washington D.C., proposed similar legislation.

Although this report limits its examination to electronic and online registration, this momentum around automatic registration clearly shows that America is in the midst of creating a modernized, accurate, and secure voter registration system for the 21st century.

In 1993, Congress passed the “Motor Voter” law to address the voter registration challenges of the day. It used then-current technology to sign up more eligible citizens than ever before. It also laid a foundation for the kind of upgrades we see today. No one should lose their vote because of registration problems due to outdated technology. Electronic and online registration make voting more free, fair, and accessible to all eligible citizens. Other states should embrace these systems without delay.

Voter Registration in a Digital Age: 2015 Update