Testimony of Wendy Weiser and Nicole Austin-Hillery on H.R. 1719

Wendy Weiser and Nicole Austin-Hillery submit written testimony in support of H.R. 1719, the Voter Registration Modernization Act of 2009, to the Subcommittee on Elections of the Committee on House Administration. H.R. 1719 would require states to provide for online completion and submission of voter registration applications.

October 29, 2009
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United States House of Representatives
Committee on House Administration
Subcommittee on Elections

Testimony of
Wendy Weiser
Nicole Austin-Hillery
Center for Justice at NYU School of Law
October 28, 2009

Modernizing the Election Registration Process
October 21, 2009 

On behalf of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, we thank the Subcommittee on Elections for holding this hearing and for considering our testimony in support of H.R. 1719, the Voter Registration Modernization Act of 2009.   We commend Chairwoman Lofgren for introducing this important piece of legislation to upgrade our voter registration system and urge the Subcommittee to support H.R. 1719.  We also recommend several revisions to H.R. 1719 and urge the Subcommittee to consider broader legislation to further improve our country's antiquated voter registration system. 

The Brennan Center for Justice is a nonpartisan public policy and law institute that focuses on issues of democracy and justice. Among other things, we work to ensure fair and accurate voting and voter registration systems and to promote policies that maximize participation in elections. We have done extensive work on the subjects of voter registration and the maintenance of voter registration lists, including conducting studies and publishing reports, providing assistance to federal and state administrative and legislative bodies with responsibility over elections, and, when necessary, litigating to compel states to comply with their obligations under federal law and the Constitution.

I.          The Subcommittee Should Support H.R. 1719, the Voter Registration Modernization Act

H.R. 1719, the Voter Registration Modernization Act, is an important first step toward streamlining and modernizing our country's antiquated and overburdened voter registration system.  By allowing online registration, the bill would make voter registration more accessible and less burdensome for potential voters, more efficient and cost-effective for election officials, and would greatly decrease the potential for clerical error that so often creates voter roll inaccuracies and unnecessary barriers to the polls.  By providing an opportunity for voters to receive voting information electronically, the bill would also ease communication with voters and provide an additional mechanism for keeping voters informed and engaged.  In short, passage of H.R. 1719 will significantly improve the voter registration system.

1.      H.R. 1719 Will Reduce Errors and Other Problems that Plague the Current Voter Registration System  

The current, paper-based voter registration system creates a range of problems for election officials and voters alike.  Each election year, millions of Americans must submit new or updated voter registration forms, generating a mountain of paperwork that must be processed by an army of election clerks.  A substantial portion of voters submit their paperwork at the last minute before an election, and so election offices are typically inundated with paper to process at the eleventh hour of the election cycle-the very time their attention should be focused on ensuring that Election Day operations run smoothly.  Such a labor-intensive system in such a compressed time frame is costly and inefficient.  It also multiplies the possibilities for error.  Inaccuracies on the voter rolls result from difficulties deciphering voter handwriting, typographical and data entry errors, voters' failure to update their registration information, lost or incomplete registrations, and inability to process registrations on time, among other things.  Inaccurate voter rolls create a range of election administration and voter list maintenance headaches, including increased numbers of provisional ballots to process and confusion at the polls. 

Inaccurate voter rolls also create an unacceptably high risk of eligible voter disenfranchisement.  For the up to 29% of registrants who submit their registrations by mail,[1] there is a risk that their registrations will be lost or delayed and thus not processed in time for an election.  For the up to 20% of registrants whose records contain typos, there is a risk that their information will not be properly verified by election officials or that their names will not be found on the voter rolls on Election Day.[2]  These eligible citizens typically cannot cast ballots that count. 

Online registration reduces each of these problems.  First, because voters type in their own registration information online, there is no need for separate data entry by election officials.  Second, by eliminating data entry, online registration reduces the potential for typos and other errors.  Third, by transmitting registration information over the Internet, online registration eliminates problems stemming from lost forms or mail delays.  Fourth, by providing a convenient way for voters to check and submit corrections to their registration information, online registration makes it more likely that voters will ensure that their registration records are accurate and up-to-date, and less likely that voters will mistakenly submit duplicate registrations.  Voters are best equipped to spot outdated or incorrect information in their own registration records and, in a modern system, should be given the ability and incentive to do so year-round.  Fifth, for all these reasons, online registration significantly reduces the workload of election officials and the cost of administering the registration system.  The registration update function also saves money: the more voters update their registration information, the less effort and resources election officials have to expend to maintain the voter rolls.  Sixth, and most important, by reducing errors in the registration process, online registration will reduce unwarranted and preventable voter disenfranchisement.

2.      The Experiences of Other States Demonstrate that Online Registration is Feasible and Cost Effective, and Will Realize Ongoing Cost Savings

The reforms proposed in H.R. 1719 are already up and running and enjoying tremendous success in several states.  The experience of those states demonstrates that online registration is feasible, can be accomplished at a reasonable cost, and pays for itself rapidly in increased efficiency and costs savings. 

Arizona has been using online voter registration for seven years already,[3] and its success is inspiring a growing number of states to adopt the reform.  Washington and Kansas also have online registration up and running, launched in January 2008[4] and July 2009 respectively.[5]  Louisiana,[6] Colorado,[7] Oregon,[8] Indiana,[9] and Utah have all approved online systems in the past six months and expect to have their systems in place by 2010.  California has authorized online registration as soon as its HAVA database is complete.[10]  There have been virtually no technical problems in operating these systems,[11] and no security problems.

Start-up costs for online registration are modest.  Arizona's pioneering system was established for less than $100,000.[12]  Washington spent $279,000-$170,000 at the state level and $109,000 among counties.[13]  And Kansas was able to build its system in-house, without any separate appropriation or use of federal funds.[14]  Recent estimates have ranged from $217,000 in Oregon[15] to $400,000 in California.[16]

As these states have found, online registration can be set up relatively quickly and inexpensively; and, once in place, the system can be maintained with a minimum of effort and expenditure.  In Washington, system maintenance and overhead costs $22,000 annually.[17]  Colorado expects its system to cost $58,147 in its second year, primarily salary for one information technology employee.[18]  And in Arizona, where an increasing proportion of all registration transactions now take place online, total maintenance and personnel costs are estimated at $125,000. [19]

These states' experience suggests that these investments will quickly pay for themselves.  In Maricopa County, Arizona (which includes Phoenix), processing an online registration costs an average of three cents, compared to 83 cents for each paper application.[20]  As a result, online registration produces annual savings equivalent to the cost of eight full-time employees.[21]  Similarly, Washington's online system has produced over $175,000 in savings for the state in its first year-and-a-half, while registrants have saved over $94,000 in postage.[22]  And the State Elections Director of Kansas anticipates substantial savings by eliminating the costs associated with data entry error and cleanup.[23]

3.      H.R. 1719 Will Increase Voter Registration

Approximately 30% of voting-age Americans, and 41.5% citizens aged 18-24, are not registered to vote.[24]  Online voter registration makes registering to vote simple and quick.  Easing the registration process encourages more people to register, and to keep their personal information up to date and accurate.  In its first full year of operation in Arizona, approximately 25% of all voter registrations were submitted online.  Currently, nearly 70% of all voter registrations in Arizona are submitted online.[25]  Online voter registration has had great success among younger voters, the most mobile and under-registered voting demographic.  For example, in Washington, voters between 18 and 24 accounted for nearly one-third of online registrations in 2008.[26]

4.      The Building Blocks for Implementing H.R. 1719 Are Already in Place

As a result of the Help America Vote Act of 2002, every state now has (or soon will have) a statewide voter registration database capable of sharing information, including with state departments of motor vehicles.  These voter databases form the backbone of online registration systems.  The technology for setting up online voter registration systems that transmit information to voter databases already exists.  As mentioned, eight states either have online registration in place or are in the process of designing such systems.  As these states have found, with a statewide database in place, it is relatively easy, quick, and inexpensive to set up online registration. 

With this growing track record for ease, efficiency, and reliability, online registration has come to enjoy increasingly widespread bipartisan support.  In Indiana it was included in a bill that passed the General Assembly unanimously.  And in Colorado online registration passed the Senate unanimously after receiving the support of an initial skeptic, Republican Senator Greg Brophy, who declared, "I am absolutely positive this is going to be not only secure, but a necessary step forward."[27]  We respectfully urge this Subcommittee similarly to support this necessary step forward.

II.        Suggested Improvements to H.R. 1719

The Brennan Center applauds Chairwoman Lofgren's efforts to modernize the voter registration system through the use of the Internet.  This is an innovative and effective way to expand registration opportunities and reduce inefficiency and error while maintaining the integrity of the registration process.  There are, however, opportunities to improve upon this forward-thinking proposal.  We hope that the Subcommittee will consider these recommendations as it moves forward with the bill.

First and most significantly, we recommend that you consider coupling the requirement for an automated Internet-based voter registration system with a requirement for an automated system that can be accessed by telephone as well.  Many voters-especially those who typically have the greatest difficulty accessing the current voter registration system-do not have easy access to the Internet or have disabilities that prevent them from securing the benefits of an Internet-based system.  These voters could be accommodated through a secure automated telephone system with all the features of an Internet-based system.  Such telephone systems are commonly used and effective.

Second, we recommend that you consider adding more specific security protections to guard against unauthorized changes to a voter's registration information. More specific protections will ensure that states adopt sufficient security measures and that malicious individuals will not be able to falsely update the voter registration information of other registrants without those registrants' knowledge or ability to correct the mistake.

Third, the bill currently requires states to confirm the receipt of registration updates via e-mail only if requested by the voter.  We recommend that this protection be extended to all those who use the online registration and update system.  This relatively cost-free modification will enhance the security and reliability of the system.


III.       The Subcommittee Should Also Consider Broader Voter Registration Modernization Legislation

H.R. 1719 is a critical first step toward broader reforms to modernize our voter registration system.  We hope that the Subcommittee will also consider additional reforms to bring our antiquated voter registration system into the twenty-first century. 

Election officials, experts, and policy-makers agree: our voter registration system urgently needs an upgrade.  Developed in the early 19th century, the current system is costly, inefficient and unreliable.  The system overwhelms election officials with burdensome and needless paperwork, and prevents many Americans citizens from exercising their right to vote.  This outdated system is the single greatest cause of election problems for voters and election officials alike.

There is an emerging bipartisan consensus on the best approach to modernization.  Building on databases already in place, we can now automatically register every eligible citizen on other government lists, ensure that every voter's registration is permanent within each state, and provide adequate safeguards to correct errors or omissions on the voter rolls.  Online registration is one critical such safeguard.  This common-sense, cost-effective plan would simplify the registration process and bring as many as 65 million eligible Americans into the electoral process.  At the same time, it would ease burdens on election officials and make our voting system less susceptible to fraud and less expensive for taxpayers.  Such a system is routine in other countries, and because of the recent legal and technological advances in voter registration, it is now achievable here.

Components of a Fully Modernized System

The key components of a fully modernized voter registration system are:

  • Automatic Registration.  Under automatic registration, states automatically register eligible citizens, including newly eligible citizens, based on reliable information on other government lists.  Election officials retain their traditional authority to determine voter eligibility.
  • Permanent or Portable Registration.  Under permanent registration, once a voter is on a state's voter rolls, she will remain registered and able to vote at the polling place associated with her address so long as she continues to reside in that state.  Permanent registration can be accomplished by automatic registration record updates and procedures allowing voters to update their records before and on Election Day.
  • Election Day Correction.  Under an Election Day correction process, citizens can correct errors and omissions on the voter rolls before and on Election Day.
  • Online and Telephone Registration.  Online and telephone registration provides another critical safeguard to ensure accurate voter rolls.

A fully modernized registration system along these lines would yield dramatic benefits.  Far more than online registration alone, it would largely eliminate the problems plaguing the current voter registration system, improve access to the franchise and increase registration rates of eligible voters, increase the accuracy of the voter rolls, reduce opportunities for fraud and misconduct, improve election administration, and save millions of dollars each year in wasteful and unnecessary expenses.

A Fully Modernized System is Feasible

Modernizing the voter registration system along these lines is eminently feasible.  Each of the components of this system has already been implemented successfully in U.S. states and other major democracies, and other U.S. government agencies use similar techniques to build and maintain reliable lists.  In addition, every state already has the building blocks for a fully modernized system in place.

Each Component of a Fully Modernized System Has Been Successfully Implemented

In Delaware, for example, election officials recently collaborated with the motor vehicle authorities to launch an automatic voter registration system that has been widely praised.  Launched in February 2009, Delaware's "eSignature" program enables citizens to electronically initiate or update their voter registrations at the same time they obtain or make updates to their driver's license or state identification cards at motor vehicle offices.  Information provided to motor vehicle authorities is automatically and electronically transmitted to election officials, in real time.  In its first months of operation, Delaware's automatic registration program reduced election administration costs by more than 10% and decreased wait times at motor vehicle offices.

The Selective Service also successfully uses automatic registration and similar data-sharing techniques to build its list of young men aged 18 to 25.  The agency receives nearly three quarters of its information from other government agencies, including state departments of motor vehicles, the Department of Labor's Job Corps Program, the Department of Education's federal student aid office, the Department of State, the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Department of Defense, and the Alaska Permanent Fund.  The Selective Service's lists contain records for about 16.5 million individuals-or about 95 percent of its target population.  It reports that its use of automatic registration and data-sharing has significantly reduced its costs for building and maintaining its registration lists.[28]

Statewide permanent registration is currently in place in eight states-Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, and Washington-as well as in eight additional states that achieve that result through Election Day registration-Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Wisconsin and Wyoming.  Several states automatically update registration records as part of this process.  Moreover, as a result of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, every state uses permanent registration techniques for voters who move within an election jurisdiction.[29]


A recent Brennan Center study of voter registration systems around the world found that the United States is an outlier in placing the full onus of voter registration on individual citizens.  In other major democracies, the government facilitates voter registration, typically by using data-sharing techniques to automatically register eligible citizens found on other government lists.  Canada in particular has achieved great success with a voter registration modernization system with all of the components outlined above.[30]


The Building Blocks For a Fully Modern System Are In Place

The primary building block for full modernization of the voter rolls is already in place: computerized, statewide voter registration databases capable of sharing information with other databases.  In addition, the Brennan Center's research shows that most other government agencies that serve prospective voters similarly maintain their lists in a computerized database capable of sharing information and collect all of the information required for voter registration.[31]  With these building blocks in place, a fully modernized registration system will entail a relatively modest investment.  This investment will be recouped very quickly though substantial cost savings. 

Modernizing the System Is Cost-Effective

The cost of upgrading the voter registration system to a fully modernized system will be relatively modest, and it will be more than recouped in ongoing savings going forward.  Delaware, for example, spent $600,000 to build its automatic registration system (it already has permanent registration), and it is already realizing more than $200,000 in annual savings and anticipates even greater savings going forward.  While Canada spent millions of dollars in initial costs to build a voter registration database and launch its modern voter registration system, it recouped its initial investment in cost savings in the first election in which the new system was employed.[32]  U.S. election officials expect voter registration modernization to reap annual savings of one-third or more of total election costs.

Broad Bi-Partisan Support

Because full voter registration modernization is a common sense reform that yields a broad array of benefits, it is not surprising that it has garnered support from a wide array of sources, including election officials, newspapers, voter advocates, and other key stakeholders.  The New York Times, Washington Post, Washington Times, Roll Call, Christian Science Monitor, Kansas City Star, and the Boston Globe are among the publications that have editorialized in favor of this reform.[33]

A broad and bipartisan group of public officials have similarly come out in favor of voter registration modernization.  For example, Robert Bauer, chief counsel for Obama for America, and Trevor Potter, chief counsel for McCain 2008, recently co-authored an op-ed advocating for this reform.[34]  Robin Carnahan, the Democratic Secretary of State of Missouri, and Trey Greyson, the Republican Secretary of State of Kentucky, similarly published an op-ed calling for modernizing the voter registration system.[35]  Former Republican Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell and current Democratic Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner agree that modernizing the registration system like this is the way forward.[36]  And a bipartisan group of former and current elected officials recently launched the Committee to Modernize Voter Registration based on this platform.[37]

Additional Resources

The Brennan Center has both conducted and collected extensive research on voter registration modernization; much of this research is available at http://www.brennancenter.org/content/pages/voter_registration_modernization

*          *          *

            For these reasons, we respectfully urge the Subcommittee both to support H.R. 1719 and to adopt expanded legislation further modernizing the voter registration system.

[1] U.S. Election Assistance Commission, Impact of the National Voter Registration Act on Federal Elections, 2007-2008 6 (June 30, 2009), available at http://www.eac.gov/program-areas/research-resources-and-reports/complete... (28.8% of registrants submitted registrations by mail, fax or e-mail).

[2] See, e.g., Social Security Administration, Quick Response Evaluation; Accuracy of the Help America Vote Act Verification Program Responses 5, June 2009 (reporting failure rate of 31% when attempting to match voter information with Social Security Administration data), available at http://www.ssa.gov/oig/ADOBEPDF/A-03-09-29115.pdf; see also Justin Levitt, Wendy R. Weiser & Ana Munoz, Making the List:  Database Matching and Verification Processes for Voter Registration ii, 2006, available at http://tinyurl.com/66t6r8.

[3] Office of the Secretary of State, Arizona, Arizona's Electronic Voter Registration Program (EZ Voter) 1 (2009) [hereinafter Arizona Summary].

[4] H.B. 1528, 60th Leg., Reg. Sess. (Wash. 2007), available at  http://apps.leg.wa.gov/billinfo/summary.aspx?bill=1528&year=2007.

[5] E-mail from Brad Bryant, State Elections Director, Office of the Secretary of State, Kansas (Oct. 10, 2009) (on file with Brennan Center).

[6] H.B. 520, 2009 Leg., Reg. Sess. (La. 2009), available at http://www.legis.state.la.us/billdata/byinst.asp?sessionid=09rs&billtype....

[7] H.B. 09-1160, 67th Gen. Assem., Reg. Sess. (Colo. 2009), available at http://www.leg.state.co.us/clics/clics2009a/csl.nsf/fsbillcont3/2C915DDD....

[8] H.B. 2386, 75th Leg. Assem., Reg. Sess., (Or. 2009), available at  http://www.leg.state.or.us/09reg/measpdf/hb2300.dir/hb2386.a.pdf.

[9] H.B. 1346, 116th Gen. Assem., 1st Sess. (Ind. 2009), available at http://www.in.gov/legislative/bills/2009/HE/HE1346.1.html.

[10] S.B. 381, 2007-2008 Sen., Reg. Sess. (Cal. 2008), available at http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/07-08/bill/sen/sb_0351-0400/sb_381_bill_20....

[11] The only technical problems of which we are aware are two instances in which a system could not be accessed as a result of too much traffic.

[12] Arizona Summary, supra note 3, at 17.

[13] Washington Secretary of State, Washington State Online Voter Registration Packet 6 (2009) [hereinafter Washington OVR Packet], available at http://nass.org/index2.php?option=com_docman&task=doc_view&gid=632&Itemi....

[14] Arizona Summary, supra note 3, at 17; Washington OVR Packet, supra note 21, at 8; e-mail from Brad Bryant, State Election Director, Kansas Secretary of State (October 20 2009).

[15] Oregon Legislative Fiscal Office, Fiscal Note to H.B. 2386 (May 18, 2009), available at http://www.leg.state.or.us/comm/sms/fis09/fhb2386b05-18-2009.pdf.

[16] Office of Senate Floor Analyses, Bill Analysis, S.B. 381 (Aug. 23, 2008), available at http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/pub/07-08/bill/sen/sb_0351-0400/sb_381_cfa_200....

[17] E-mail from David Motz, Election Information Services Manager, Office of the Secretary of State, Washington (Oct. 16, 2009).

[18] Colorado Legislative Council Staff, Fiscal Note to H.B. 09-1160 (Feb. 3, 2009).

[19] Between 60% and 70% of all registrations in Arizona are now processed online.  Arizona Summary, supra note 1, at 18, 22.

[20] Pew Center on the States, Bringing Elections into the 21st Century: Voter Registration Modernization 3 (2009) (citing a forthcoming study), available at http://www.pewcenteronthestates.org/report_detail.aspx?id=54902.

[21] Arizona Summary, supra note 1, at 21.

[22] E-mail from David Motz, supra note 11; E-mail from David Motz, Election Information Services Manager, Office of the Secretary of State, Washington (Oct. 20, 2009) (on file with Brennan Center) (regarding savings to voters). 

[23] E-mail from Brad Bryant, State Elections Director, Office of the Secretary of State, Kansas (Oct. 10, 2009).

[24] U.S. Census Bureau, Voting and Registration in the Election of 2008, Tbl. 1, 5, available at http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/socdemo/voting/publications/p20/2008/tabl....

[25] Arizona Summary, supra note 1, at 19.

[26] Washington OVR Packet, supra note 13, at 8.

[27] Charles Ashby, State Senate OKs Online Voter Registration Bill, The Pueblo Chieftain (Colorado), Apr. 25 2009.

[28] For a detailed description of the Selective Service's use of automatic registration and data-sharing and its implication for voter registration, see Laura Seago, Automatic Registration in the United States: The Selective Service Example (Brennan Center 2009), available at http://www.brennancenter.org/content/resource/automatic_registration_in_....

[29] For a detailed description of permanent registration and how it works in the states that have implemented it, see Adam Skaggs & Jonathan Blitzer, Permanent Voter Registration (Brennan Center 2009), available at http://www.brennancenter.org/content/resource/permanent_voter_registrati....

[30] See generally Jennifer Rosenberg with Margaret Chen, Expanding Democracy: Voter Registration Around the World (Brennan Center 2009), available at http://www.brennancenter.org/content/resource/expanding_democracy_voter_....

[31] For a more detailed review of state and federal agency lists, their demographic coverage, the information they contain, and their data-sharing capabilities, see Laura Seago, Government Lists: How Ready Are They For Automatic Registration (Brennan Center 2009), available at http://www.brennancenter.org/content/pages/voter_registration_modernizat....

[32] See Rosenberg, supra note 30, at 8.  Canada's previous voter registration system was a costly door-to-door enumeration system, and so it recouped its investment faster than is likely for most states.

[33] For a complete list of editorials and articles covering voter registration modernization, see http://www.brennancenter.org/content/pages/voter_registration_modernizat....

[34] Robert Bauer & Trevor Potter, A New Page for Voting, Washington Post, June 25, 2009.

[35] Robin Carnahan & Trey Grayson, Voter Registration System Needs to Be Modernized, Roll Call, March 10, 2009.

[36] Ken Blackwell, Time for a Big Overhaul, Washington Times, Oct. 5, 2009; Election Enhancements Workgroup, Report from the Secretary of State on HB 260, Sept. 21, 2009.

[37] See http://www.modernizeregistration.org/.