Montana voters last Tuesday soundly rejected a ballot measure that would have eliminated same-day registration. As states across the country move to restrict voting, the Montana result offers a ray of hope for advocates looking to improve the election process.
It is no wonder Montana voters defeated the initiative. Same-day registration prevents voters from being disenfranchised because of earlier mistakes in the election process. Allowing voters to register at the polls on Election Day also gives get-out-the-vote groups additional opportunities to mobilize and engage voters. Voters who live in the majority of states without this fail-safe option, however, faced confusion and difficulty in obtaining regular ballots, and many were prevented from casting a ballot at all if they did not register before the deadline, which could be as much as 30 days before the election
With same-day registration secure, the Montana legislature should consider another feature of 21st century voting — the ability to register online. By allowing voters to register to vote and update their registration information online, this modern tool would alleviate burdens on county clerks on the front-end of the process and cut down on Election Day lines.
Online voter registration is nothing new. It is simply a system that allows voters to register — and to check and update their registration records — through a secure and accessible online portal. Twenty-four states, including nearby Washington State, currently have, or are working to implement, online voter registration with great success. States that have online voter registration attest that it helps to minimize the administrative burden and costs on state election officials, and keeps voter lines moving on Election Day. What’s more, online registration is a modern, user-friendly, and cost-effective way to ensure more voters register and keep their registration information up to date. If a voter can bank and shop online, they should be able to register to vote online too.
Since Montana already has a same-day registration system that allows voters to provide their signatures at the polls on Election Day, online voter registration could be designed to allow a broader audience of users to benefit. For example, many online registration systems are limited to citizens who already have a signature on file with a state agency. Because election officials already know how to process registrations when voters provide their signature at the polls on Election Day, Montana’s online system can go further than this and reach more eligible citizens.
Online registration also makes sense in a state like Montana, where voters may live many miles away from the nearest county auditor’s office, and may only want to make that trip once — on Election Day itself.
With reforms like online voter registration, Montana’s registration process will be more user-friendly and allow voters to avoid the headaches associated with the ramshackle pen-and-paper system.
So when the legislative session begins on January 5th, Montana lawmakers should build on the voter’s strong support for same-day registration by enacting online registration that makes signing up to vote in Montana freer, fairer, and more accessible to all.