Online Access (to the Ballot Box): Congress Proposes Internet Voter Registration

Photo credit: jsdart of Flickr

By Daniel Shickich

Citing the powers granted in Amendments 19, 24 and 26, Democratic Representative John Lewis and cosponsors House Democratic whip Steny H. Hoyer, Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn, Representative John Conyers, and Representative Robert Brady introduced a new bill into the U.S. House of Representatives that aims at improving voter access to the ballot box in part by moving voting registration online.

The bill, entitled the Voter Empowerment Bill of 2012, is designed to, among other things, “modernize voter registration” by instructing the states to make voter registration available online. Under the proposed law, states would be required to update their official state websites to allow citizens to register to vote online. In addition, the bill calls on states to utilize the web to enable citizens to easily update their voter registration information when they move.

Much of the coverage of the Voter Empowerment Bill of 2012 focuses on how the bill attempts to counter a movement among state legislatures passing stricter voter ID bills. However, for those interested in the intersection of law and technology, the movement of voter registration to online systems administered by the states represents a common sense answer to an ongoing problem that both Congress and the Courts have struggled to solve.

Voter registration remains a problem in U.S. elections. A recent report by the Pew Center on the States9 found that approximately 51 million eligible Americans—more than 24 percent of the eligible population—are still registered to vote. The same study also noted that 24 million voter registrations in the United States are no longer valid or have significant inaccuracies, according to the Pew Center on the States. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, 12 states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, and Washington—currently or will soon offer online voter registration. Washington’s online registration site, introduced in conjunction with a move to automate voter registration at DMVs and hosted on the Secretary of State’s website, cost $280,000 to implement; the Secretary of State’s office saved over $125,000 in the first year, and state counties saved even more. The site allows citizens of Washington to register to vote and update their addresses as needed. The Voter Empowerment Act of 2012 would make such sites mandatory for all 50 states.

In a partisan election year, the Voter Empowerment Bill of 2012 seems destined to die in the House, where it has approximately 100 Democratic supporters, but no Republicans. However, the idea of online voter registration seems to be catching on – the bill has been endorsed by non-partisan voting rights groups including the Brennan Center, Common Cause, Demos, the League of Women Voters and Rock the Vote. And if it does, it will open up whole new areas of law and technology, as the inevitable challenges to security, accuracy, and access arise.

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