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How the EAC Could Help Bring Voter Registration Into the Digital Age

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The Federal Election Assistance Commission is currently updating regulations on the federal voter registration form. As part of this rulemaking, the EAC has invited comments on how amending the regulations to incorporate new technologies could facilitate applicants' use of the federal form. Public testimony is also being taken.

Today, I testified before the EAC. I proposed that the EAC amend its regulations to expressly permit an electronic version of the federal form to be filled out and signed by hand electronically on touchscreen mobile devices, and then e-mailed to the appropriate state election officials. Because states must accept and use the federal voter registration form, the EAC could quickly modernize voter registration by updating its regulations. The new regulations are expected early next year.

Touchscreen technology is already widespread, even among those with below-average incomes and is projected to dominate the market in the next few years.

Being able to sign your voter form electronically would be a great innovation, but it is not that radical of an idea. Santa Clara County, California, has accepted federal voter registration forms submitted this way. At least two states already ask voters to sign voter registration forms on an electronic keypad at their state motor vehicle agencies, and others are moving in this direction. States also digitize voter registration signatures, turning paper signatures into electronic files.

State Election Officials Would Benefit

Electronic forms offer the same benefits that online voter registration offers to a state. Cost savings would be significant. In Arizona, an online form costs just $.03 to process, versus $.83 for a paper form. Errors would be eliminated. Officials in Arizona found that paper-based forms were five times more likely to introduce errors versus paperless registrations. The forms could be processed much more rapidly, with fewer personnel, because data upload is essentially instantaneous.

Voters Would Benefit

Voters would be able to complete a voter registration application at any time, and in virtually any place. They would not need a printer or a stamp. If they don't own a touchscreen mobile device, they could borrow one to register to vote. Third-party voter registration organizations are already using touchscreen computers to register voters.

Voters could also know immediately if their voter registration has been received, instead of waiting days or weeks.

This would also allow for electronic registration in all NVRA states, not just the eight that currently offer online registration. Moreover, it would allow all voters to take advantage of electronic registration, not just those with current in-state driver's licenses. That limitation leaves out thousands and thousands of voters in every state, a disproportionate number of whom are youths, seniors, or minorities.

Electronic Signatures Are Secure

Touchscreen technology collects data points throughout the signing process -- like a mini-video -- and encodes this data in the electronic file sent to election officials. Officials can examine this data for verification purposes if they need to. The signature can also be rendered tamper-proof.

Electronic Signatures Will Also Allow for Comparison Matching

Handwritten electronic signature will compare well with handwritten inked signature when states match signed mail-in ballots with signatures on file, for at least two reasons. First, voters control their signature. If they do not like the appearance of an electronic signature, they can erase it and start over before they submit it to election officials. Second, handwritten signatures will be more current than the signature captured by online registration systems from driver's licenses, which may be years old.

Electronic Signatures Are Also Consistent With Federal Law

The NVRA requires states to accept the federal voter registration form. the federal form "may require only such identifying information (including the signature of the applicant) ... as is necessary to enable the appropriate State election official to assess the eligibility of the applicant... " The federal form also "requires the signature of the applicant, under penalty of perjury."

A handwritten electronic signature meets both of these elements just as well as a signature inked on a piece of paper.

For more information, see my prior blog on this subject in The Huffington Post, or FELN's website.

For a webcast of the EAC public hearing, click here. Brian J. Siebel's testimony begins at 2:58:00.

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