New Study: Bringing Voter Registration into the Digital Age

October 27, 2015

America’s outdated voter registration needs improvement, but as technology has advanced, a growing number of states are using 21st century methods.

A total of 38 states now use electronic and/or online voter registration, nearly double the total from our last study five years ago, according to a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice. These systems boost registration rates, increase voter roll accuracy, and save money, the study found.

Electronic and online registration are two of the most popular modern methods of signing up voters, according to the report, which is based on interviews with more than 70 election officials nationwide.

Electronic registration is when a government agency — in most cases, a department of motor vehicles office — collects information and sends it digitally to election officials, instead of relying on paper forms. Online registration allows voters to submit their application over the Internet.

“No one should lose their vote because of registration problems due to outdated technology,” reads Voter Registration in a Digital Age: 2015 Edition. “Electronic and online registration make voting more free, fair, and accessible to all eligible citizens. Other states should embrace these systems without delay.”

Our key findings:

  • 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.
  • Electronic and online registration increase voter roll accuracy. Election officials overwhelmingly reported that modernization 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. Of the 29 states that reported tracking cost savings, all said electronic and online registration reduces costs. Washington State, for example, saves 25 cents with each online registration.

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With these improvements, some states continue to innovate and find new ways to sign up even more voters. For example, this year, Oregon and California enacted laws to automatically register eligible citizens to vote. This groundbreaking reform takes electronic registration a step further by shifting the burden of signing up voters onto the government.

Automatic registration is the subject of a recently updated Brennan Center policy proposal, The Case for Automatic, Permanent Voter Registration. This comprehensive plan would upgrade America’s outdated and error-prone voting system, add up to 50 million eligible voters to the rolls, save money, and increase accuracy — while curbing the potential for fraud and protecting the integrity of elections.

Overall, legislators in 18 states plus Washington, D.C. have introduced bills this year that would automatically register citizens. Once California and Oregon implement their laws, more than 13 percent of the total U.S. population will live in states with automatic registration. This movement has also carried into the 2016 presidential race: Both former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) have endorsed automatic, universal registration.

For more information, or to set up an interview, please contact Erik Opsal at erik.opsal@nyu.edu or 646-292-8356.