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Voter Registration in a Digital Age: 2015 Update

Published: 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Amer­ica’s outdated voter regis­tra­tion system needs improve­ment.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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AnchorExec­ut­ive 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These prob­lems stem from our coun­try’s outdated system of regis­ter­ing citizens and updat­ing the voting lists.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