By: Allen Coon
It was an early Tuesday morn when the Commonwealth awoke to an October surprise all of its own: on October 12th, the last day for eligible Virginians to register to vote in the November 3rd General Election, a Chesterfield County utilities crew accidentally severed a cable providing online connectivity for multiple Commonwealth agencies—including the Virginia Department of Elections. Prospective voters who had hoped to register or update their registration online were denied the option, with no alternative but to register in-person by 5:00 p.m.
In October 2016, when a similar technological malfunction prevented applicants from registering online, such a glitch may have posed a burden for citizens with limited or no transportation access or employment flexibility. Now, during a global pandemic, the unavailability of online registration also required all in-person applicants—and specifically elderly, poor, disabled, and minority Virginians (all vulnerable populations)—to unnecessarily risk exposure to COVID-19.
Online voter registration services were restored by 4:00 p.m., but by then the damage was done. As it did in 2016, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law sued to extend the voter registration deadline; and, like in 2016, a U.S. District Court granted the extension, permitting Virginians the chance to register to vote until 11:59 p.m. on Thursday, October 15.
To paraphrase a former President: fool us once, shame on you; but fool us and we can’t get fooled again.
In a presidential election where the loser alleges that the vote was “rigged,” and that common, safe voting methods (specifically vote-by-mail) caused “a fraud like you’ve never seen,” and when 48% of the U.S. public believes that “‘voter fraud across the US [sic] has undermined the results of our elections,’” the Virginia voter registration glitch risked not only disenfranchising innumerable Virginians, but endangering national civic trust in our electoral processes. It was an unfortuitous combination of electronic errors and registration restrictions that fooled the citizens of the Commonwealth in 2016—and now, in 2020. We can’t get fooled again.
Thanks to Virginia’s same day voter registration law, we won’t. Virginia will soon be the only Southern state to permit same day voter registration prior to and on Election Day (passed in April 2020, the law is not effective until October 1, 2022); but same day registration is not new. Since 1973, 21 other states and the District of Columbia have enacted some form of same day registration. The process may vary (in North Carolina, it is permitted during early voting but not on Election Day, and Alaska only allows it for presidential and vice presidential contests), but the purpose is the same: to permit eligible but unregistered residents to register to vote and cast a ballot on the same day. Its success is proven, as is its administrative efficiency and security.
Same day registration policies improve voter participation, increasing voting rates for young, African-American, and, in Wisconsin, Republican voters. Same day registration limits the prevalence of provisional ballots cast, thus reducing the administrative labor of processing provisional ballots and related postelection litigation. Perhaps most importantly, same day registration is safe: a 2007 survey of voter fraud in 6 states with same day registration identified only 10 incidents of alleged voter fraud from 1999 to 2005, and, during the 2004 elections, only 5 convictions for federal voter fraud (all in Wisconsin).
Same day registration may actually strengthen electoral integrity in the Commonwealth, not weaken it. The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee’s bipartisan investigation into Russian cyberattacks during the 2016 elections determined that the election systems of all 50 states were targeted, and “[i]n a small number of states, these cyber actors were in a position to, at a minimum, alter or delete voter registration data.” Same day registration may mitigate the consequences of a successful cyberattack—or even innocent registration errors by voters, private parties, public agencies, and election officials—by preserving the right to cast a ballot upon correction of an altered or deleted registration. In Virginia, same day registration will supplement voter roll purges by protecting accurate registration systems without disenfranchising eligible voters. Security requirements, such as requiring same day applicants to prove their identity and residency in-person, will also limit fraudulent abuse.
While same day registration would not have prevented the October 12th “Cablegate,” it will prevent the public confusion and legal uncertainty which such incidents provoke. It may also improve total voter participation in the Commonwealth, where the unofficial tally shows 4,459,752 Virginians voted in the 2020 Presidential Election. Online voter registration is a necessary service for voters; but next time the cable is cut, the cost will be inconvenience, not disenfranchisement.