I. In Focus This Week
California comes online…sort of
Governor signs legislation allowing for online voter registration
With the stroke of a pen from Gov. Jerry Brown, California recently once again legalized online voter registration providing an additional opportunity for more than six million residents of voting age to register to vote.
California law already allows for online voter registration, however the process on the books before the new legislation was approved was contingent upon the completion of the state’s federally approved voter registration database — VoteCal.
While the state does have a statewide voter registration database, the current system does not make it possible to fully register to vote online. Tired of waiting for the state’s fully federally compliant statewide voter registration database to come online San Francisco Senator Leland Yee introduced SB 397 which would allow counties to offer online voter registration now.
“This is an important first step toward fully upgrading California’s voter registration, making use of better technological tools to make the voter registration process more accurate, less expensive, and more efficient,” said David Becker, director of the Pew Center on the States’ Election Initiatives.
Under SB 397, citizens will input their voter information online and the county elections office would use the voter’s signature from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to verify authenticity. That signature can be matched against the voter’s signature at the polling place.
Currently voters can input all of their information online but instead of hitting send, they must hit print and send the completed form into their local county election office.
“At this time, Secretary of State Bowen has taken online voter registration as far as she can with the resources available,” explained Nicole Winger, a spokesperson for the secretary’s office.
Although no exact timeline has been given for the implementation of online voter registration, Yee and others are hopeful that it will be in place in advance of the June 2012 primary. The new law does have several contingencies in it though.
“It is my understanding that there are a few issues left to resolve: One, EAC [U.S. Election Assistance Commission] needs to confirm use of some federal funds (HAVA) to implement; two, county vendors for voter registration need to be able to receive digital signatures; and three the interface between DMV to SOS and SOS to counties needs to be established,” explained Gail Pellerin, Santa Cruz County clerk and current president of the California Association of Clerks and Election Officials.
When online registration is finally available in California, there will be multiple benefits. In addition to getting more people accurately registered to vote, one of the biggest impacts of the new law will be cost savings. Kim Alexander with the California Voter Foundation said that the cost savings are “potentially enormous.”
Research by the Pew’s Election Initiatives indicates that there are substantial cost savings that result from online registration.
“For instance, in Maricopa County, Ariz., where they’ve had online registration for almost a decade, it costs them only an average of 3 cents to process each online registration, as opposed to 83 cents to process a paper registration, and they’ve reduced their printing costs by 75 percent,” Becker said.
According to Becker, as a result of these kinds of savings, jurisdictions that have implemented online registration have recouped their initial investment in around two years or less.
Alexander said another cost savings may be found on provisional voting.
“California has more provisional voting than any other state - in 2008 it accounted for one third of all provisional ballots cast nationwide! One fifth of those ballots [issued in California in 2008] were not counted because those voters were not properly registered,” Alexander said.
One area of concern about the new online voter registration law is what impact not having a statewide voter registration database could have on the registration process.
Alexander said that California is one of only nine states that lacks a registration status look-up tool for voters and without that tool, there could be problems with the new online system.
“I'm concerned if we implement online registration without an accompanying registration status lookup tool then many people will end up reregistering when they actually don't need to, and this will lead to extra, unnecessary work for counties processing those registrations,” Alexander said.
The state has already applied for a federal grant to help pay for the process and representatives from the secretary of state’s office are working with their counterparts in the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to create the new online process.
“There is a lot of infrastructure that still needs to be modified or developed,” Winger said.
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