- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 20, 2015

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Iowa residents with a state driver’s license or photo ID will be able to register online to vote as early as 2016, a state commission decided Tuesday.

The Iowa Voter Registration Commission’s unanimous approval of a rule aimed at developing such a system means the state Department of Transportation will begin work on it immediately. Officials believe it will be available to voters in time for the 2016 primary.

“This is obviously another major step toward the goal we all share … to encourage as much (voter) participation as we can,” said Secretary of State Paul Pate after the voice vote.

The new system will allow qualified voters to visit a website where they can input the numbers on their state-issued driver’s license or photo ID. Information from the Transportation Department, including the voter’s signature, would then be imported into voter registration forms that would automatically be forwarded to the state’s voter database. The new website would be linked through the Iowa Secretary of State’s office and county auditors’ sites.

Voters currently fill out a paper application form to register, and that option will not go away.

Voter rights groups have said the new system should provide equal access to people without a state driver’s license or state-issued ID. That accounts for roughly 7 percent of eligible voters.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa along with other groups expressed their opposition to the system during a public hearing in December.

The groups also issued a joint statement at the time, saying the system would exclude eligible voters such as the elderly, minorities and low-come residents because the groups said they’re less likely to have these forms of identification. A draft of the proposed system also lacked details on how the new website would be equally accessible to voters with disabilities, they said.

ACLU legal director Rita Bettis said while the group supports the commission’s efforts, legislation is needed before implementation to avoid excluding any eligible Iowa voters.

“The current regulation needs to be fixed so that it’s fair and accessible to all Iowans,” she said.

Carol Olson, the deputy secretary of state for the elections division, said allowing this system to be developed is one of several steps needed to ensure it will eventually be available to all voters.

“We can capture 93 percent of the eligible voters through the DOT system, but we don’t stop there,” she said at the meeting. “The other 7 percent of the eligible voters are just as important.”

Commissioner Troy Price said he wants an update at the next commission meeting on how the new website will be accessible to people with disabilities.

Troy also was open to future discussion on the development of an app that would allow voters to give a digital signature from a smartphone during online registration.

The four-member committee’s decision does not require legislative action. Olson said the Transportation Department has not set up a meeting to further discuss the issue.

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