If Capitol Hill Democrats have their way, every American soon will have the option to grab their laptop, plop down on the couch and register to vote. Yet unlike other hot-button voting rights issues, such as early voting and same-day registration, the idea is gaining momentum among some state-level Republicans.
Online voter registration is a central provision of a voting rights bill jointly filed last week by Rep. John Lewis of Georgia and Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand of New York, both Democrats. The measure, called the Voter Empowerment Act, collectively so far has 168 cosponsors in both chambers — all Democrats.
But at the state level, the issue is largely nonpartisan, as half of all states with online voter-registration programs already in place have Republican-led state legislatures. And of the eight state legislatures with bills this year proposing the idea, five are GOP-controlled, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
“Everyone loves it,” said Arizona Secretary of State spokesman Matt Roberts, whose state was the first to implement online voter registration in 2002 and has been the model for other states since. “Obviously, Arizona is pretty conservative, but the one area that seems to have pretty universal support is that voter registration online is a good thing.”
The benefits basically are twofold: convenience for voters and big cost savings for local governments.
Local elections offices typically hire temporary workers, particularly in big election years, to manually enter voter-registration information from paper forms into computer databases. But online registration mean less paperwork, fewer workers and lower costs.
“The [local elections] clerks have found a lot of value in it,” said Colorado Secretary of State spokesman Richard Coolidge, whose state began voter online registration in 2010. “They’re getting higher data quality for less money.”
Registrants first must have a driver’s license or state-issued identification card, as their demographic information — including their digitized signature — is taken from their motor-vehicle record.
Reported cases of hackers breaking into electronic voter-registration rolls have been rare, as the systems include numerous safeguards, state officials say. And they add the potential for voter fraud is no greater — and probably less — with online registration than with paper forms.
“There’s never going to be a system impervious to fraud, but I think our [online voter registration] system has a great amount of safeguard in place to prevent it,” Mr. Roberts said.
The online registration provision is just one of dozens in the 199-page bill, which is part of an overall effort by House Democrats to push back at Republican-controlled states they say curtailed voters rights during the 2012 elections.
Among the bill’s most contentious components is a mandate that states provide at least 15 days of early voting in federal elections, a move spurred in part by efforts by some states, such as Florida, to scale back early-voting days.
Democrats say such curbs resulted in long lines on Election Day and explicitly were done to hurt Democrat-leaning demographic groups, such as students, minorities and the elderly, who often rely on early voting. Republicans counter that Democrats’ push to protect and expand early-voting measures is nothing more than a crass attempt to increase Democratic turnout at the polls.
The bill would require states to allow voters to register the day of an election and prohibits states from barring convicted felons from voting once they’ve served their sentence.
The measures also makes it unlawful to impede, discourage or prevent a person from voting by knowingly providing false information about the time or place of voting or the qualifications for voting. Democrats had complained that Republican operatives last November telephoned Democratic voters with false polling information.
“The right to vote should be the birthright of every American, but in the past several years, more than a dozen states have passed laws making it more difficult for citizens to exercise their constitutional right to vote,” said the House’s No. 3-ranking Democrat, Rep. James E. Clyburn of South Carolina. “We urgently need to update our federal laws to safeguard the sacred right of American citizens to vote.”
Democrats introduced a similar bill last year, but it failed to clear the committee level.