Samuel Derheimer, a manager at The Pew Charitable Trusts, oversees Pew’s upgrading voter registration portfolio.
Julia Brothers, a senior associate at The Pew Charitable Trusts, researches and analyzes voter registration administration in the states.
To meet the expectations of an Internet-savvy public, states are increasingly posting election resources and information on their state Web sites. In particular, providing voter registration resources such as online voter registration or downloadable registration forms can make the registration process more convenient for voters and election officials.
But there is significant variation among the voter registration resources available online. Internet tools and services range from intuitive online wizards that fully guide voters through the application process to those sites that offer no online services at all.
Forty-seven states and the District of Columbia host a registration application available online in some format.
Of those states that put registration applications online, 20 and the District of Columbia have full online voter registration systems available for desktop use and/or via mobile devices. These states allow a voter to complete and submit a voter registration form completely electronically without having to print, sign or mail anything.
In most states with online voter registration, however, the application process is linked to the motor vehicles database. This means that a relatively small percentage of eligible citizens—those without a driver’s license or state-issued ID—may not be able to take full advantage of the system.
In most cases, these states used the same or a similar online registration wizard to generate an application for voters without a motor vehicles record. The difference is that instead of submitting the form electronically, these voters must print, sign and send in the form. (In Delaware, however, the process is completely electronic via an online wizard for all eligible citizens, regardless of whether they hold a license or not.)
The states without full online voter registration offer at least one, if not several, opportunities to access a registration form through either 1) a downloadable PDF that a voter can complete by hand, 2) a fillable PDF that can be completed electronically or 3) an online wizard that generates a form. All of these options still require a voter to print, sign and return the form, usually by mail or in person.
Typing into a fillable form or wizard can decrease the amount of time voters spend completing a form, and it eases the burden on election officials to interpret messy hand-written applications. However, the fillable PDFs often require specific web browsers or updated Adobe software to work, while online wizards can be more flexible and optimized for mobile devices.
Not all state Web sites are intuitive, and in some cases, voter registration forms may be difficult to find. In Maine, for example, the online PDF is not available under the “Voter Registration” section of the Web site, but rather under “Voter Registration Data & Election Data.” Other state Web sites have multiple voter registration pages, only some of which include links to the statewide form.
Only New Hampshire and New Mexico do not have a state form that can be downloaded or filled via an online wizard. New Hampshire instructs citizens to contact their local county clerk to register to vote. New Mexico’s Web site offers a link to the National Voter Registration form and also refers voters to the Election Assistance Commission and the Federal Election Commission for voter registration information, but has no link to a state-specific registration application.
Twenty-two states offered online registration resources in languages other than English—the most common being Spanish. Some states accommodate an even broader array of language needs. For instance, California’s website offers an online registration application in nine other languages besides English. While some states may only carry hard copy multilingual forms in registration offices in specific communities or counties, placing forms online means that non-English speakers may have the opportunity to access a registration form regardless of where they are in the state.
Voters who don’t have access to online voter registration, or who prefer paper registration, have to provide a signature in some way. In most states, this means signing a piece of paper that must be delivered via the postal mail or in-person. However, three states (Alaska, Colorado and South Carolina) and the District of Columbia allow voters to print out and sign a form, then scan the form and email it to the appropriate election office, alleviating the need for postage. All the states that accepted a scanned emailed form also accepted regular postal mail or in-person delivery.
Pew research has shown that states that offer a full online voter registration experience measureable cost-savings and reductions in data inaccuracies. As more and more states expand access to online voter registration services, there is a wide range of options for doing so.
To view a state-by-state guide to registration tools and forms on state websites, please click here.