Government Technology

Will Touchscreen Devices Transform Voter Registration Systems?

May 19, 2010 By

With November elections on the horizon, Santa Clara County made a strategic move last Friday, May 14, when its Registrar of Voters became the first in the nation to accept electronic signatures for voter registrations.

The decision came after Verafirma, a Silicon Valley technology company, pitched the idea to use the county as a test bed for its e-signature system. Using the National Voter Registration Act form on the company's website, the software captures a "secure electronic signature" that the registrant writes on an iPad, iPhone or another mobile touchscreen device. Created to eradicate issues with the pen-and-clipboard method of years past, advocates said this historic and innovative approach could forever change the process of voter registration.

"Being in Silicon Valley, we're proud of our efforts to promote electronic voter registration," said Elaine Larson, assistant registrar of voters for Santa Clara County, "and make it available to everybody to register to vote in a safe and secure manner."

So far, five people have used the free service and signed voter registration forms electronically at a table set up at San Jose State University. Three of the five were re-registration forms with information that was "really clear and better than what we have on file," Larson said.

Santa Clara County's effort represents the latest wave in a broader movement to modernize voter registration systems across the country. By using the Internet and new technology, state and local governments hope to reduce voter registration costs and mistakes created from processing paper files.

In recent years, more and more states have been exploring online voter registration systems, which link data obtained at motor vehicle divisions to state election offices, said Michael Slater, executive director of Project Vote, one of the nation's leading voter engagement organizations. Project Vote estimates that at least 10 states will have online voter registration by the end of 2010.

Electronic signatures elevate this trend, giving people the option to fill out the voter registration form from anywhere, anytime. Of course, this method may raise security concerns and fears of voter registration fraud. But Slater called the Santa Clara County system a forward-thinking, efficient "innovation of convenience," which makes online registration available to anybody with minimal risk.

"I'm sure that there are some tech experts that would find security and privacy concerns," he said. "Is it worth the modest risk? Unless someone convinces me otherwise, I'd say why not."

Cost Factor

Oregon spent approximately $8.8 million -- or $4.11 per active registered voter -- on its voter registration system during the 2008 election, according to a recent report by The Pew Center on the States.

Conducted by the Pew Center on the States with assistance of Oregon state and local election officials, researchers tout this landmark case study as the first publicly available, detailed compilation of state voter registration costs. Variations in state laws and differences in duties between state and local election officials make it tricky to obtain such figures.

But with Oregon's real numbers under the microscope, The Real Cost of Voter Registration puts state dollars into perspective to help states estimate their expenses and figure out how to modernize efforts, according to John Lindback, senior officer for Election Initiatives at the Pew Center on the States and former Oregon state election director.

"States need to analyze their current voter registration costs before they can determine effective ways to modernize the process," Lindback said in a statement. "A good starting point is to use 21st-century technology that will not only make registration less expensive, but also more efficient and accurate."

With electronic voter registration, states can cut costs significantly. In Phoenix, for example, it costs at least 83 cents to process a

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