October 6, 2008 By Andy Opsahl
Utah is developing online voter registration functionality, and it may use Salt Lake County's system as a template, according to a county official.
Salt Lake County is currently the only municipality in the state that lets residents submit voter registration forms online, said Julio Garcia, director of the Salt Lake County Employees' University and former director of elections for the Salt Lake County Clerk's Office (SLCO).
The project, first implemented in 2007, aims to eliminate much of the data entry involved in voter registration. Citizens complete voter-registration forms online, then click send to transfer their data to an electronic "holding table." They also print a copy of the form, sign it and mail it to the County Clerk. That printed form contains a barcode -- a SLCO employee scans it upon arrival -- that retrieves the registration information from the holding table and sends it to the registration database.
The system could dramatically reduce the percentage of registration forms the county rejects due to missing information. The challenge is getting voters to register online, Garcia explained. Although the county doesn't have exact numbers yet, Garcia said the number of online registrations is relatively low.
Currently the SLCO rejects 10 percent of all mailed voter registration forms. The figure is even worse for county residents who register to vote through Utah Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV). They get their forms rejected nearly 50 percent of the time, Garcia said.
"It's horrible because [the DMV's] form is horrible. It's not intuitive. People miss lines where they're supposed to complete information," Garcia said.
Voters registering online, by contrast, get their forms rejected less than one-half of 1 percent of the time, according to Garcia. Those rejections happen in the rare instances when online registrants don't mail in the printed version of the form with a signature.
The online registration tool also saves the SLCO from entering thousands of registration forms from unaffiliated voters who want to vote in Republican primaries. Utah has closed primary elections, meaning only a Democrat can vote in a Democratic primary, and so forth. But the Utah Republican Party allows unaffiliated voters to become Republicans on the day of its primary and vote.
Garcia said roughly 20,000 unaffiliated voters made this last-minute registration change during the Republican primary in June 2008, and then roughly 15,000 switched back after the election. Each registration involved another form the SLCO had to manually enter into its database. Now the SLCO requires voters using the party switching strategy on primary days to do so online.
"That way we can [skip] all of that duplication work like we always had to do in the past," Garcia said.
He said he knew the strategy worked after the state's Republican primary because for the three days following that election, the online registration function had the busiest days ever up to that point. Thousands of voters were likely switching back to being unaffiliated, Garcia said.
The Salt Lake County voter registration project won recognition at the Center for Digital Government's Best of the Web awards in Hollywood, Calif., in September.