By: Alannah Shubrick

In 2015, the Florida Legislature passed a bill permitting Floridians to register online to vote. Two years later,  finally went live in October. Now, Florida is one among 35 states that allow voters the option to register to vote online. The new online voter-registration system is part of broad efforts across the state to modernize the Florida voter registration system and enable all eligible Floridians to join the electorate.

The bill is a significant change in the Florida’s voter registration system. The online system allows Floridians to register by providing basic information. Then, the online application is electronically forwarded to the appropriate election office, and that office is responsible for verifying the application and issuing a voter card. Online registration is certainly more convenient for Florida voters than the traditional method in Florida, which required registrants to mail or hand-deliver their voter-registration form to an election office.

However, in light of both cybersecurity concerns, and fear of technological malfunctions, the bill was amended  to  provide that the online system would not become available until  after the 2016 Presidential election. When Governor Rick Scott signed the bill into law in 2015, he also voiced serious concerns about the increased threat of cyber-attacks, explaining that “added technology results in added challenges and vulnerabilities.”

While there was widespread support for the bill in general, many people were unhappy with the delayed implementation of the online voter registration system. The Florida President of the League of Women Voters, Deirdre Macnab, stated that “there’s no reason for delay . . . and it should be of great concern to voters” because online voter-registration “is not rocket science. It’s a win-win.”

While Governor Scott’s concerns surrounding increased exposure to cyber-attacks may not have been seriously heeded at the time, the point is more poignant in light of the widespread attempts by Russian hackers to influence the 2016 election.  Florida was among many states specifically targeted in the attack. Now, the 2018 elections for Governor and U.S. Senate will be the first Florida elections to make use of the online voter-registration option. After conducting a “dry test” of the system, some election officials expressed “growing concerns about cybersecurity.”

So, with this system in place, what steps have been taken to protect Florida’s voter registration system from cyber-attacks? First, the online application process includes a “captcha,” which is an attempt to make it more difficult for computer bots to fraudulently register. Additionally, applicants must choose their street address from an online directory rather than manually imputing that information. Furthermore, the online application process requires more information than is otherwise necessary to register to vote in Florida. In addition to full name and date of birth, online registrants must provide their driver’s license number, the date the license was issued, and their social security number. However, these additional requirements may be legally invalid.

While the State insists that the “higher level of authentication is required for voters registering online,” some voting rights advocates argue that the additional requirements are “cumbersome.” In that case, the steps taken to protect against cyber-attacks may undermine the goal of enable more eligible adults to join the Florida electorate. It appears that, in the difficult task of attempting to balance cybersecurity concerns against goals of reaching full voter participation and modernizing Florida elections, the State may have exposed itself to legal challenge. The results of this will likely become apparent after Florida’s 2018 election cycle.

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