Imagine if there was a way to save taxpayer money, fulfill an important role of government with far greater accuracy and efficiency, and bring about increased participation in our democracy.
There is such an innovation already in use in nearly two dozen other states that have found it to be highly successful.
This tool is online voter registration, and it is now available to the citizens of Pennsylvania. Implementing online registration in the commonwealth is a meaningful and necessary step toward the Department of State’s goal of making voting more accessible to all who are eligible.
Online voter registration is an idea that makes good sense in many ways. For one, registration is more convenient and accessible. It also increases security and makes voter rolls more accurate. Additionally, the cost of processing applications decreases dramatically as the need for labor-intensive data entry is reduced.
Recently, I attended the annual conference of the National Association of Secretaries of State. I listened with great interest as other chief election officials told of their states’ experiences with online voter registration.
Of particular interest to me were the accounts from former skeptics, officials who once had concerns about online registration. Without fail, they said the system has been a valuable addition to their voter registration options. They have found that it increases accessibility, efficiency and accuracy.
Those stories are backed up by a May 2015 report from the Pew Charitable Trusts. In Arizona, which in 2002 was the first state to launch online registration, Pew reports that election officials saw the cost of processing voter registrations decrease from 83 cents per traditional paper form to 3 cents for each online registration.
Those are cost savings that will be realized in each of Pennsylvania’s 67 county voter registration offices. Cost savings, though, are not the only benefit to the counties. They also can expect greater efficiency in processing applications, leading to more accurate voter rolls.
Over the years, the Department of State has heard of the difficulties counties face in processing voter registrations. County staffers must try to decipher handwriting that is often illegible. Or maybe a required field is not completed, so the county must contact the applicant and make a good-faith effort to obtain the information necessary to process the application.
Traditionally, counties receive the bulk of handwritten applications in the final days before an election registration deadline. That means counties often must pay overtime or hire temporary staff in order to process thousands of last-minute submissions. This challenge is significantly greater in presidential election years.
With online voter registration, processing each application will take far less time. An applicant’s completed electronic form will be forwarded directly to the appropriate county for processing. The electronic application will not be transmitted if required information is missing. There is no illegible handwriting to be considered. County staffers will need to verify only that the applicant’s information is correct, that the voter is not already registered, and that there is a signature on file.
Implementing online voter registration in Pennsylvania is made more feasible because the required technical platform has been built to align with current systems and programs. The online registration system mirrors the existing electronic Motor Voter Registration program in use at the Department of Transportation (PennDOT). The applications submitted through the online system will fully integrate with the Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors (SURE), already used by all the counties.
As for the security of online voter registration, our system incorporates the latest data security protocols. These measures will be constantly monitored and updated. In addition, an applicant’s personal information will not pass through several hands before the registration is processed, which can occur with a paper application filled out and handed to a volunteer.
As elsewhere, Pennsylvanians have grown accustomed to doing business online, whether it is shopping, banking or filing their tax returns. People not only accept online transactions; they expect them. They want to conduct such transactions from the convenience of their own computers or mobile devices.
The Department of State knows from the experience of other states that online voter registration will quickly become the preferred tool for newly eligible citizens to register – and for existing voters to update their records. With online registration, Pennsylvania too will realize the benefits of increased convenience, accuracy and cost savings. We believe that citizens who take the responsibility to register to vote deserve to have the most convenient option available to them.
In the Commonwealth, there are approximately 2 million citizens who are eligible, but not registered to vote. We hope online registration is one reform among others that will significantly reduce that number. The result will be more Pennsylvanians exercising their most fundamental right of citizenship – the right to vote.
Pedro A. Cortés is Pennsylvania’s secretary of state. For information, visit www.dos.pa.gov.