Lawmakers in the Michigan House recently passed HB 4539 and 4540, which together lay out the principles to allow for the electronic submission of voter registration applications. The change would allow for citizens with access to the Internet to register online by filling out a form similar to the paper form, and signing electronically. The form is then automatically printed at the local clerk’s office. Arizona was the first to implement online voter registration in 2003, followed by Washington in 2008, with six other states following last year. Other states have proposed similar legislation, and online registration continues to grow in popularity. In Arizona, 25% of all new voter registrations took place online in its first year and within a few years that number reached 70%. Michigan is expected to see similar numbers. The bills are currently headed to the Senate for further review.
This new legislation has several clear aims. The costs associated with online registrations are significantly lower than paper forms. Arizona spends nearly 83 cents processing each paper voter registration form while their online voter registrations may be completed with a cost of only 3 cents. Postage for delivery and receipt is not necessary with online registration because the form is immediately and automatically printed off at the clerk’s office after the registrant submits online. The registrant then has the option to print off a copy on their printer for personal records. This process would also cut down the amount of information that needs to be manually entered from paper forms, which would help prevent errors. Michigan in particular experienced difficulties with third-party form falsification last fall with groups like ACORN. Michigan hopes to eliminate such risks by taking the registration forms out of those group’s hands and giving voters this simple and streamlined way of registering.
While there are many procedural and administrative reasons for pursuing an online voter registration system, the underlying goal is simple: getting more people to vote. By instituting a simpler and more accessible state-wide system, the number of registrants is likely to increase. Arizona attributes a 9.5% total increase of voter registrations between the 2002 and 2004 election cycles to their online voter registration system. Any method that would increase the ability of American’s to exercise their fundamental rights should be seriously considered.
However, significant opposition still exists. The Michigan Election Reform Alliance (MERA), a non-partisan election watch council, has criticized this new system for falling short of enabling election day voter registration, as well as maintaining the hurdle of requiring a valid signature in-person to become fully registered. Citizens registering for the first time must vote at the polls in person in order to sign their name and therefore cannot vote via absentee ballot. Those registering for the first time who intend to vote by absentee ballot may not fully understand this until it is too late to act.
Requiring in-person signatures after submitting the online form may also lead to inherent conflicts with Michigan’s Election Code. Michigan Election Law section 168.497 states that citizens who complete applications received within 30 days of the election may not be permitted to vote in that election. The new legislation would allow applications to be considered ‘received’ if submitted online before the 30 day period even if a signature is still required before a citizen is allowed to vote. Some lawmakers see this as a form of election-day registration and remain opposed.
Many believe the primary goal of election registration reform should be to increase the number of voters. Permitting election-day registration (EDR) would likely lead to a high voter turnout, but brings with it legitimate fears of fraud and crowding at the polls. While EDR has been successful in a few states, the majority of other states’ proposals have failed because of their inability to deal with these issues. Michigan’s online voter registration scheme may not significantly alter how citizens exercise their rights, but it is likely to succeed in increasing the amount of registered voters and cutting costs.
To see how online voter registration would work in Michigan, visit: http://www.macombcountymi.gov/clerksoffice/voterreg/
Alexander Grout is a student at William and Mary Law School.