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electionlineWeekly — September 20, 2012

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I. In Focus This Week

As deadlines loom, push is on to get people registered
States offer new ways to streamline process, provide information

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With voter registration looming in most states in early to mid-October, advocacy groups, political campaigns and elections officials are putting on a full-court press to get as many Americans registered in time to cast a ballot on November 6.

The National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) has deemed September as National Voter Registration Month, and for the first time this year, the country will celebrate National Voter Registration Day on September 25.

National Voter Registration Day was created by a working group of organizations including Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance Education Fund, Bus Federation Civic Fund, Fair Elections Legal Network, League of Women Voters, Nonprofit Vote, and Voto Latino.

However, civic and legal groups aren’t the only ones working to get millions of Americans registered. State and local elections officials across the country are also doing their part to get voters registered. From voter registration drives, to offering new, easily accessible ways to register and promoting registration through the media, elections officials are doing more than just processing forms.

In the Washington, D.C.-area, representatives from the three jurisdictions — District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia — teamed up to create a one-stop website where voters can go to find all the necessary information to register and vote.

Metrodcvote.org was born from the Metropolitan Washington Council of Government’s (COG) Election Officials Technical Committee.

The group, which is made of election officials from the various COG jurisdictions came up with the idea that a website would probably be the best common message they could present because each jurisdiction has different laws in regard to Election Day.

Alysoun McLaughlin, deputy director of elections for Montgomery County, Md., recalls struggling to get media coverage for the District of Columbia’s voter registration deadline when she served as that board’s spokesperson.

“I pitched [Tom Sherwood of NBC4] with a request to cover our voter registration deadline for the primary, and he responded that it would be difficult for him to do that in a major media market because if he covers D.C., he also would need to cover Maryland and Virginia’s deadlines,” explained McLaughlin. “I told him we had experienced exactly that problem so many times that we were talking among the local election officials about creating a single website with that information for all of the jurisdictions in the local media market, and his response was ‘Now that would be newsworthy and a great service to the voters.’ So a website was born.”

The idea evolved over several meetings with elections officials from Montgomery and Prince George’s counties in Maryland, the District and Arlington, Alexandria and Fairfax counties in Virginia. Then really all it took was a url, some web work by Dave Bjerke, registrar of voters for the City of Falls Church, Va. and MetroDCvote.org was live.

The costs were minimal, just the purchase of the URL and the hosting, and the COG agreed to cover those costs for the project.

Bjerke sees the site as a fast way for residents of the area to find all the information they need without visiting multiple sites.

“[It’s] a simple reference to guide voters to the correct information quickly,” Bjerke said. “This resource should be as easily accessed via a computer or a smart phone and everything in between.  One of the biggest obstacles to voting on Election Day is whether an eligible voter is registered.  Since many jurisdictions close registration books up to 30 days before an election by law, many voters are not aware of the registration deadline.  This resource is an effort to get that information out to eligible voters.”

McLaughlin said although the site has received some publicity from local media the push will really be on to get the word out next week on National Voter Registration Day.

“Most of our everyday focus is reaching our own voters where they are – in our own county/city/state. But that’s not enough,” McLaughlin said. “This is a supplement to those efforts, designed to help us get the word out in the DC media market, a channel that would be harder to use if we were competing – rather than complementing each other’s efforts.”

Online registration comes to more states
A handful of states added online voter registration to their repertoire this year including California, Maryland and New York. Nevada, which had offered online registration in a number of counties, now offers it statewide.

In Maryland, the system launched in July and has seen more than 8,000 new registrants and more than 14,000 people have updated their registration. Mary Cramer Wagner, director of the voter registration division of the Maryland State Board of Elections said that the response from voters has been positive.

It’s been a boost to local election officials as well.

“The true online voter registration has helped the LBEs with faster processing,” Cramer Wagner said. “One exception might be with UOCAVA voters and the use of non-standard addresses, although this is no different than a voter filing out a paper application.”

Cramer Wagner said following the November election the staff will sit down to review the system to see if any tweaks/modifications are necessary.

New York’s new online voter registration has received similar positive reviews and large number of users in the month that it has been available.

“This new initiative, launched just over a month ago, has certainly exceeded our expectations in allowing almost 10,000 New Yorkers the ability to either register to vote for the first time or update their voter registration information,” said Douglas Kellner, co-chair of the New York State Board of Elections. “This is a prime example of how technology can be used to help break down barriers for New Yorkers to more easily allow them to participate in our democracy.”

Since its launch in August, 9,716 New Yorkers have used the voter registration system to update their registration or complete an application. According to Kellner, 3,168 are new registrants.

Like in Maryland, Kellner said the new system has been beneficial to local elections officials as well as voters.

“During this initial phase, county election administrators are seeing a more streamlined and overall efficient process in the transmission of voter registration information from the DMV,” Kellner said. “As county election officials acclimate to the system, we expect that they will have significant savings in the amount of time it takes to process registration transactions—not to mention the improvement in accuracy.”