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Research Report

Voter Registration in a Digital Age

Published: July 13, 2010

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.