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Online Voter Registration: Accessible for All?

January 14, 2016

Development Officer

Rose Clouston, Brendan Downes, and Jennifer L. Patin

As of January 2016, 29 states and the District of Columbia have online voter registration (OVR) systems. Two additional states are set to launch OVR in the near future.[i] While OVR represents an important advancement in our democracy, its convenience and accessibility in most states benefit Americans who tend to be wealthier and whiter than the population at large. This is because the majority of states offering OVR require voters to provide a state-issued DMV ID number (most commonly from a driver’s license) in order to complete the process entirely online. Those who lack driver’s licenses—a population that is disproportionately Black, Latino, and low-income—must print, sign, and mail completed applications to local elections officials. These additional steps prevent traditionally disenfranchised communities from fully realizing the benefits of OVR.

Using a DMV ID number, a state can easily retrieve an applicant’s signature from the state DMV database, eliminating the need for the applicant to sign the OVR application. Yet a handful of states have developed OVR systems that provide for alternative methods of verifying an applicant’s identity and signature. This brief highlights the practices of those states with OVR systems that are fully accessible to all eligible voters, regardless of whether they possess a driver’s license, and encourages other states to adopt similar systems.
 

OVR in Most States is Not Fully Accessible for Traditionally Disenfranchised Communities

Eligible voters who do not possess DMV-issued IDs (or IDs produced by equivalent state offices) are disproportionately likely to be racial minorities and poor. In Louisiana, Blacks were found to be “four to five times less likely” than whites to have a driver’s license.[ii] In South Carolina, nearly 9%, or more than 200,000 registered voters, did not have a DMV ID in 2011; non-white registered voters were “nearly 20% more likely” to lack that ID compared to their white counterparts.[iii] And in Texas, studies have shown that anywhere from 600,000 to 795,000 registered voters likely lack a DMV ID, a disproportionate number of whom are Black and Latino.[iv]

Unregistered eligible voters are also less likely to have a DMV-issued ID than registered voters. A 2014 Government Accountability Office report reviewed studies that examined DMV ID ownership rates of various populations. The studies of Indiana and Wisconsin’s Milwaukee County found that unregistered eligible voters—the very individuals that voter advocacy groups strive to engage in the political process—are slightly less likely to have a DMV ID than those who are registered.[v] Additionally, senior citizens are less likely to possess DMV-issued IDs. A 2006 survey sponsored by the Brennan Center for Justice indicated that up to 18% of senior citizens aged 65 and over lack any form of government-issued photo ID, including a driver’s license.[vi] Seniors who give up their driver’s licenses may not decide to replace them with state ID cards and would lack the DMV ID numbers needed for OVR in most states.[vii]
 

States with Broadened Access to OVR

When the Lawyers’ Committee asked Delaware elections officials why the state created a more inclusive OVR system, Delaware Election Commissioner Elaine Manlove replied, “It just made sense to make it accessible to as many people as possible.” We recently spoke to election officials in states that have developed innovative approaches to ensuring that all users, regardless of whether they possess a DMV ID, can take advantage of OVR. These states have developed expansive practices, including allowing users to verify identity with the last four digits of their social security number instead of a driver’s license number and allowing users to electronically sign the OVR application. While Pennsylvania does not currently offer an entirely online registration process to all its citizens, we learned that it has taken incremental steps to help those without DMV IDs. The specific practices of Delaware, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Washington D.C. are highlighted below.
 

Delaware

Delaware implemented one of the country’s most voter-friendly OVR systems in 2014.[viii] The state’s system requests users to provide a Delaware driver’s license number or a Delaware ID number for verification purposes. However, if a user lacks either number, s/he can provide the last four digits of his or her social security number. If an applicant fails to provide any identifying number, the applicant can still vote a regular in-person ballot on Election Day as long as s/he provides an ID at the polls displaying his or her name and address.

To further expand access, Delaware’s OVR system lets users choose from one of five methods to sign their application. Users can choose to (1) draw their signature on a smartphone or tablet screen, or use a mouse for a desktop or laptop, (2) instruct the OVR system to pull the signature from the state’s DMV database, (3) instruct the OVR system to pull their signature from the elections database (if already registered and updating an address), (4) upload an image of their signature, or (5) print, sign, and mail the application to elections officials. [ix]

From April 2014 to October 2015, 8,322 voters either submitted a first-time voter registration application or updated their address via Delaware’s OVR system. Over 50% of those applicants chose to sign the application in a manner that did not require a driver’s license. In total, 27.5% of applicants chose to provide an electronic signature by drawing it with their finger or mouse.
 
Voter’s Choice of Signature in Delaware: April 2014 – October 2015

Number of Online Applications Proportion of Online Applications
Pull Signature from Elections Database 1,002 12.0%
Pull Signature from DMV Database 3,788 45.5%
Draw Signature 2,290 27.5%
Upload Signature 202 2.4%
Print, Sign, and Mail 1,040 12.5%
         8,322  

 

Minnesota

Minnesota implemented OVR in 2013.[x] Minnesotans can provide either a driver’s license number or the last four digits of their social security number as a means of verification. From September 2013 to October 2015, 5,505 out of 18,100 applicants, or 30.4%, supplied the last four digits of their social security number on the OVR application.

Minnesota does not require a signature comparison for any other part of the voting process, so a voter’s handwritten signature on a registration application is not captured and compared to any other of the voter’s signatures. When OVR users type their name at the end of the online application, they are affirming their eligibility to vote (under other provisions of Minnesota law, typing one’s name is the legal equivalent of a handwritten signature).

The combination of giving individuals options beyond a DMV ID number and not requiring a handwritten signature to be on file allows all eligible Minnesotans to utilize OVR from beginning to end.
 

Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania launched its OVR system in August 2015.[xi] At this initial stage, only individuals with ID cards issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) can complete the voter registration process entirely online. An eligible individual who lacks a PennDOT ID can enter his or her information online and then print a filled-out application, sign it, and mail it to county elections officials. Alternatively, the user can opt to receive a signature form by mail that is pre-populated with the name and address information s/he filled out online. In both instances, Pennsylvania counties receive registration information entered into the website, and the application is placed in the queue. The applicant’s returned registration form will include a bar code that links the county to the voter’s record.

As of December 2, 2015, 3,313 Pennsylvanians, or 6.6% of those who have used the OVR system, have requested the pre-populated application to sign and return to elections officials. If the user does not affirmatively request to receive the form by mail and their signed form is not received by election officials within 14 days, the state will mail the user his or her pre-populated form. An additional 3,571 Pennsylvanians have received their voter registration forms through this process. By December 2, 2015, 20.4% of registrants had completed and returned their forms out of the 6,884 applications mailed by the state.  Pennsylvania has not registered as many voters as it could if its OVR system did not require a PennDOT ID, but the state’s approach to this gap has helped 1,402 voters register.
 

Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C. enacted OVR in 2014.[xii] As of December 2015, an applicant can complete the process online via the District’s Vote 4 DC mobile application, accessible via smartphone or tablet.[xiii] Vote 4 DC users can use either the last four digits of their social security number or their D.C. driver’s license number and finish the process by signing the application on their touchscreen device and submitting it electronically. Note that laptop or desktop users not using the app cannot fully complete the registration process online at this time unless they have a DMV-issued ID. Laptop or desktop users without a DMV-issued ID cannot sign the application with a mouse and must instead print the application, sign it, and mail, e-mail or hand deliver it to elections officials.

From the launch of D.C.’s OVR system to November 2015, 9,744 applicants have provided their social security numbers for verification, while 5,228 users have only provided their driver’s license numbers (an additional 1,969 provided both numbers). This system allows residents to complete the full registration process through the Vote 4 DC app, regardless of whether they have a driver’s license.
 

Policy Recommendations

Delaware, Minnesota, and Washington, D.C. demonstrate numerous ways to ensure that all eligible citizens can fully access the benefits of OVR. While OVR is a welcomed, voter-friendly reform, limiting its benefits to those with DMV IDs excludes marginalized populations. Allowing all voters to complete the registration process online also helps election administrators reap cost-savings benefits and increases data accuracy by moving more registrations from paper systems.

Ensuring that OVR is available in a format that all voters who use the Internet can access regardless of the device they use is also key. According to a Pew Research Center report from early 2015, nearly two-thirds of Americans own a smartphone, with ownership higher among Blacks and Latinos (70% and 71% respectively) than whites. Of those with smartphones, a disproportionate number of Blacks and Latinos have limited or no other options for Internet access—12% of Blacks and 13% of Latinos, compared to 4% of whites.[xiv] While OVR should be accessible via a mobile-responsive website, the systems should also be fully accessible to those who access OVR via laptops or desktops.

The 20 states that have not yet authorized OVR should do so with an eye toward making the system inclusive of all eligible voters. If alternatives to an original written signature are not otherwise provided for in state law, the legislature should adopt language that would allow a voter to provide a signature electronically or at their polling place on Election Day. Delaware demonstrates the myriad of electronic signature capture options that can be offered.

States with OVR systems that require a DMV-issued ID and states that have yet to implement OVR should seek ways to allow an individual to sign an online application on a touchscreen, with a mouse, or by uploading a photo of their signature. If that is not feasible for the initial deployment of a state’s OVR system, the state should, at a minimum, provide an individual with the option to fill out all the fields online and request to be mailed the completed application to sign and submit. In sum, it is imperative that states do everything they can to ensure maximum access to OVR. The Lawyers’ Committee is committed to starting the conversations that help states increase voting access through sound election reforms.
 
Rose Clouston is a National Coordinator for the Legal Mobilization Project at the Lawyers’ Committee. Brendan Downes, Associate Counsel, and Jennifer L. Patin, Writer/Editor, are in the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee.
 
 

Citations

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[i] Online Voter Registration, http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/electronic-or-online-voter-registration.aspx (last visited Jan. 13, 2016).
[ii] Determination letter from Deval L. Patrick, Assistant Att’y Gen., U.S. Dep’t. of Justice, to State of La. (Nov. 21, 1994), available at http://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/crt/legacy/2014/05/30/LA-2250.pdf.
[iii] Determination letter from Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Att’y Gen., U.S. Dep’t. of Justice, to State of S.C. (Dec. 23, 2011), available at http://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/crt/legacy/2014/05/30/l_111223.pdf.
[iv] Determination letter from Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Att’y Gen., U.S. Dep’t. of Justice, to State of Tex. (March 12, 2012), available at http://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/crt/legacy/2014/05/30/l_120312.pdf; Veasey v. Perry, No. 13-cv-00193, 2014 WL 5090258 (S.D. Tex., Oct. 9, 2014), 40, (Op.) (2014).
[v] U.S. Govn’t Accountability Office, Issues Related to State Voter Identification Laws (2014), available at http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/665966.pdf.
[vi] Brennan Center for Justice, Citizens Without Proof: A Survey of Americans’ Possession of Documentary Proof of Citizenship and Photo Identification (2006), available at http://www.brennancenter.org/sites/default/files/legacy/d/download_file_39242.pdf.
[vii] Marsha Mercer, Can We Still Vote?, in AARP Bulletin (2012), available at http://www.aarp.org/politics-society/government-elections/info-01-2012/voter-id-laws-impact-older-americans.html.
[viii] Supra note i.
[ix] See generally Del. Code Ann. tit. 15, § 101 (23).
[x] Supra note i.
[xi] Supra note i.
[xii] D.C. Act 20-437 (2014), available at http://lims.dccouncil.us/Download/29420/B20-0264-SignedAct.pdf.
[xiii] See voter registration application at https://www.vote4dc.com/Voter/Voter/VoterBasicInfo?requestType=1.
[xiv] Pew Research Center, U.S. Smartphone Use in 2015 (2015), available at http://www.pewinternet.org/files/2015/03/PI_Smartphones_0401151.pdf.

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