Pennsylvania may soon embrace online voter registration

OK'd by Senate, authorization goes to House

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  • Pa. Senate bill 37

  • HARRISBURG -- You can already shop, take care of your banking or chat with your friends online.

    Is registering to vote next?

    A bill that passed the state Senate last week proposes just that.

    "I think it is a common-sense change that encourages people to participate in the process. It's hard to argue against that," said Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster, the legislation's main sponsor. The bill passed the Senate unanimously; it now moves to the House.

    Currently, eligible Pennsylvania voters can go online and print out a registration form that they must fill out and mail, but Senate Bill 37 would make the registration process completely available online. It also would allow current voters to switch their address or party affiliation online.

    Twelve states already have online paperless voter registration. Four other states have passed legislation facilitating online registration but have not begun registering voters electronically yet, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan research organization.

    Several factors are driving the trend, such as the cost savings for states and improved accuracy of voter rolls, said Jennie Drage Bowser, senior fellow, legislative management program with the conference.

    While there can be upfront costs, most states have seen a huge savings in processing voter registration forms online versus on paper, she said, citing data from Arizona that put that state's cost of processing a standard paper registration at $0.83, versus $0.03 for an online one.

    Additionally, the public has an expectation of quick and easy online services, she said.

    "It's sort of what the public expects now. People don't do very many things on paper anymore," Ms. Bowser said.

    In Pennsylvania, upfront software costs could be up to about $300,000, though they could be far less, according to a fiscal note accompanying the legislation. Any cost savings would more likely be seen by individual counties, which handle voter registrations before sending them on to the state, said Ron Ruman, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State.

    Open government groups such as Common Cause Pennsylvania and the American Civil Liberties Union have lauded the legislation as a needed modernization.

    "For the health of democracy, elections should be run as smoothly as possible," said Andy Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, in a statement about the bill. "Online registration can make the process more precise. That leads to less delay and fewer problems on Election Day."

    A 2010 study that examined online voter registration systems in Arizona and Washington -- two states that have had online voting since 2002 and 2007, respectively -- found the systems were popular. Demographically, voters who registered online tended to be younger, whiter and more concentrated in urban areas than rural ones, the study found. Despite being on average much younger, people who registered online voted at higher rates in 2008 than those who registered by paper.

    The Senate bill wouldn't impact Pennsylvania's controversial voter ID law, which was blocked by a judge before being implemented last year prior to the November election. Arguments in a court case over the law are expected to begin in July.

    Voters would still need to provide a driver's license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number to register, and their signature would be verified using a signature already on file with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. If a voter doesn't have a driver's license or state ID card -- meaning their signature wouldn't be on file with PennDOT -- they would need to register using the old-fashioned method.

    "This is as secure as the paper system," Mr. Smucker said. "The paper system requires input on those two items and that is manually verified. It is as secure if not more secure."

    Why did this bill pass unanimously when the voter ID debate was extremely controversial?

    "The voter ID argument has been very sharply partisan, and the online voter registration has not been," said Ms. Bowser, noting that many Republican-leaning "red states" such as Arizona, South Carolina and Utah have online registration.

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    Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@post-gazette.com, 1-717-787-4254 and on Twitter: @KateGiammarise.


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