I. In Focus This Week
Five steps to getting online voter registration right
Measure twice, cut once princple applies to elections too
Online voter registration has become a “thing” in the last couple of years.
When implemented properly, it makes it easier for voters — especially military and overseas voters — to register.
It also helps maintain the accuracy of voter rolls; reduces the cost of list maintenance; reduces the inherent potential for error in paper-based systems; saves significant amounts of money; reduces delays and congestion at polling places; and improves the voter experience because voters get immediate feedback when they are registered or when their information has been updated.
There are complications and subtleties, but as online voter registration becomes widespread, more ways are emerging to refine the process to better serve voters and election officials.
This piece provides five tips that will help as jurisdictions create an optimal online voter registration system:
- Allow as many eligible voters as possible to register online, including those without state-issued IDs.
- Have a mobile optimized website that is optimized for smart phones and tablets.
- Make the online voter registration website easy to use and understand, including by voters who have disabilities or limited English.
- Collaborate with local officials
- Make sure your online voter registration website is secure.
Allow all eligible voters to register online
Before 2014, applicants generally could only complete an online voter registration application if they had a signature in the database of their state motor vehicle agency (“MVA”) that could be electronically transferred to complete the application.
By the end of 2014 five states offered citizens without a state ID or driver’s license the opportunity to complete a voter registration over the Internet and this trend will grow because there are several ways to reliably verify an applicant’s identity and eligibility other than a signature from the MVA.
In Minnesota, for example, the state does not collect signatures for voter registration purposes. Instead, it accepts and verifies an applicant’s Social Security number to confirm identify and eligibility.
In both Delaware and Missouri, voters can use a stylus pen or a finger-based signature from their touch-screen devices in lieu of a signature transferred from the MVA.
Another possibility is to allow applicants to attest to the truth of statements in their online application by executing a computerized mark, a process that is fairly common in electronic consumer and real estate transactions.
The online registrant would then supply an actual, “wet” signature at their polling place. This is comparable to HAVA’s requirement that first time voters who have registered by mail present identification at the polling place if they have not already done so.
Develop a mobile-optimized website
Having a mobile-optimized voter registration website (“MOW”) is critical because people are increasingly conducting web searches from mobile devices – smart phones and tablets – rather than desktop PCs.
You can create a MOW by adding mobile capabilities to an existing site or developing a mobile version. To determine how mobile friendly a website is, you can conduct a manual inspection of the site on a mobile device and/or using Google’s Webmaster tools, which will show errors that affect the website’s mobile friendliness and suggest fixes.
Having a mobile optimized voter registration website improves the (mobile) user experience and increases the average time a mobile device visitor will spend on the site by presenting information in a complete and usable manner. It produces faster website load speeds, which is both inherently helpful and less likely to result in users abandoning the page. It improves your mobile search engine optimization, which makes it more likely that your website will show up in response to a search for voter registration information.
In short, having a mobile optimized website it makes it more likely that the growing number of voters who access the Internet primarily from smartphones and tablets will get to your website and successfully register there.
Make the online website accessible
People with disabilities often do not have a driver’s license, and/or have difficulty traveling to brick-and-mortar registration sites. So if the goal is registering as many eligible voters as possible, states need to go beyond the legal requirements of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.
For example, Indiana utilizes special text-to-speech software for users with visual impairments or reading challenges. And California upgraded its online voter registration application by adding user-friendly enhancements, including a simpler, more intuitive layout, and improved accessibility features.
For similar reasons, online voter registration sites should also be optimized for those whose English language skills are limited. Data from the 2014 American Community Survey shows that over 63 million people (a record) speak a language other than English at home. That number has risen 16.2 million since 2000 and 3.6 million since 2010.
After English, the languages with the most speakers are Spanish (39.3 million) and Chinese (3.1 million), but the largest percentage increases from 2010 to 2014 were among speakers of Arabic (up 29 percent), Urdu (up 23 percent), and Hindu (up 19 percent).
And though certain states, such as California, New Mexico, and Texas, have a larger portion of their population speaking primarily a foreign language, the three states with the largest percentage increase in foreign language speakers from 2010 to 2014 were North Dakota, Wyoming, and Nevada.
Make website easy for election officials to use and understand
In many ways, an online voter registration system can only be as good the local election officials who use it.
In many states, for example, local election officials review online voter registrations before they are entered into a statewide database. If the online registration system isn’t easy for these local election officials to use or understand, applications are less likely to be processed efficiently, and voter rolls are less likely to be updated quickly.
Ensure the online voter registration website is secure
Perhaps because the Internet is still relatively new, the public (and elected officials) often have less confidence in the security of online databases than public records.
So even if it were not otherwise important (which it is), building public (and legislator) confidence in online registration requires steps be taken to ensure online voter registration systems effectively protect voters’ private information.
To that end, encryption, Captcha, and other programs can help protect against automated hacking. In the same vein, strategies/tools such as routine audit logs, secure networks, and unique identifiers can help impede unauthorized access.
Interestingly, none of these security measures can be applied with paper registration from.
As of early 2016, online voter registration is a critical component of election administration for most U.S. jurisdictions.
But to realize its full potential for voters, administrators, and other stakeholders, the online process and experience must be upgraded and refined. The five suggestions discussed in this article should make it easier for localities to successfully implement online voter registration, and easier for their citizens to vote.
(David Levine is an Election Management Consultant who has administered county, state, federal and private sector elections; developed election policy for non-profit organizations; and monitored elections in other countries. His expertise includes voter registration, election administration, poll worker training, outreach, research design and evaluation, voting system standards, logic and accuracy testing, post-election audits, voting accessibility, evaluating proposals and voting technology. )
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