By Wendy Underhillnumber of states using online voter registration is on the rise. Here's the evidence:
- In 2001, online voter registration hadn't been invented yet.
- In 2002, Arizona became the first state to use online voter registration.
- In 2008, Washington became the second.
- In 2009, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Oregon and Utah either enabled or implemented online registration.
- In 2012, California, Nevada and South Carolina got their systems fully up and running, and Connecticut, Delaware and Hawaii passed enabling legislation. (Experts argue about whether New York has online voter registration; its system is paperless from the voters' perspective, but paper is exchanged between the Department of Motor Vehicles and the State Board of Elections.)
How does online voter registration work? Citizens fill in a web-based form to apply for voter registration. The system searches state records--mostly drivers license records--to confirm the voter's identity and applies an existing electronic signature to the voter registration application. If all checks out, then the application is approved, and the voter is registered. If not, the application is kicked out for humans to deal with.
Online voter registration has been a big hit with legislators and election administrators because it reduces costs and increases accuracy. NCSL receives many questions about it, and therefore maintains an Online Voter Registration webpage.
As of last week, there's a new wrinkle on this topic: security vulnerabilities in the online voter registration systems in Maryland and Washington. In those two states it would be possible for a hacker to tamper with someone's registration and thus cause a voter to be incorrectly registered on Election Day. Does this means that online voter registration opens up another channel for elections skullduggery?
Possibly, but not likely on any large scale, given that wholesale data-switching would likely draw the attention of systems administrators. And yet, even small-scale switching isn't ok. "As any possible security breaches show themselves, we'll do our best to see that they are corrected," says Maryland's Delegate Jon Cardin, the chair of the Ways and Means Committee's subcommittee on election law.
Cardin doesn't expect security to be a deal breaker, though. "When you look at the broader picture of security and voting generally, we face far more efforts to manipulate a vote through the non-technical system," he says, referring to paper-based voter registration applications. Paper registration forms have their own vulnerabilities, including inaccuracies due to handwriting, data entry, and, well, skullduggery. Every election year, stories emerge of people from political parties or citizen advocacy groups who offer passersby the chance to fill out a registration form, and then throw away registration applications from those of the opposing party.
Whether on paper or online, Cardin points out that "it is a felony in Maryland to tamper with somebody else's voter registration," and convictions come with significant jail time and major fines. "Be that as it may, we still want to make sure that our system is as secure as possible and that the voting population has confidence in the system."
The upshot? States that already have online voter registration are going to be taking a close look at their protocols. And states that don't already have online voter registration are going to add "what about security?" to the list of questions they'll want answered before they join the online trend.