Survey Finds Voter Registration Processes Stuck in Place

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Elections have undergone an array of changes in the past few years, most of them in the direction of modernization. But as millions return to the polls this fall for the mid-term election, electionline.org's latest Election Reform Briefing "Holding Form: Voter Registration 2006," finds that the process of voter registration remains largely unchanged.

The report, the result of a survey of state election directors conducted at the start of the 2006 primary season, found that even as technology marches forward with new machines and new databases, voter registration is by comparison still largely a paper-and-pen affair requiring stamps and mail boxes. Lead times can exceed a month in some states, and rules regulating what information is on forms -- as well who can distribute and collect them -- vary greatly across state lines.

"The report demonstrates that while the only constant in election reform for the past six years has been change, this area - the first step in the process of becoming a voter - is firmly entrenched in the 20th Century," said Doug Chapin, electionline.org's director. "Advances in virtually every other areas of elections have not yet found their way to the process of voter registration - and especially not the part that most would-be voters experience."

Among the findings:

  • While the variety of services available from state governments online is growing in most areas, it remains largely under-utilized in the voter registration field. Forty-one states use the Internet as a place for voters to find forms, but once located such forms still need to be printed, filled out by hand, and sent to or dropped off at a registrar's office.   
  • Only one state, Arizona, allows for a completely paperless, online registration, using digital signatures from DMV transactions. Even with the Internet option, however, Arizona voters must complete the registration at least 29 days before an election.   
  • Restrictions on "third party" registration drives conducted by political parties, civil rights groups, environmental activists and others are growing nationally as each federal election cycle brings scattered reports of mishandled or discarded registration applications. Of the 37 states responding to the survey, 17 indicated that rules are in place requiring some increased level of scrutiny registration drives - sometimes to the dismay of groups organizing from such drives. Rules vary, from mandatory training or registration of volunteers in some states, to "anti-bundling" regulations in Ohio that prohibit the return of multiple applications, to Florida's new $5,000 fine for every voter registration application that cannot be accounted for by the group who solicited the application.   
  • Most states do not maintain statistics on the number of rejected applications. Those that did indicated the numbers nationally could be in the hundreds of thousands each year. The most common reasons - applicants are not old enough, do not have a valid address or are not U.S. citizens.   
  • While localities were not separately surveyed, state officials indicated that local registrars of voters contact applicants if mistakes are identified on registration applications. However, it is not known if the practice is standard for all applicants in all localities.

"The reluctance to embrace technology is not unsurprising, especially considering the unease with which many view the modernization of elections generally," Chapin said. "While there may continue to be technological advances in the area of voter registration in the foreseeable future, I would expect such advances to be met with the same skepticism and scrutiny that has attended modernization efforts in other parts of the voting process."

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electionline.org is the nation's leading nonpartisan, non-advocacy organization researching, analyzing and reporting on election administration and reform. It is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts with a grant administered by the University of Richmond.

Pew is no longer active in this line of work, but for more information, please visit electionline.org.