THE BLOG

Bring Rhode Island's Election Law into the 21st Century

05/28/2015 10:56 am ET | Updated May 27, 2016

What's more common sense than making voting more accessible while reducing opportunity for fraud, all while reducing taxpayer costs?

It is time to do just that by upgrading Rhode Island's election law. Right now, the Ocean State has the opportunity to pass bipartisan legislation that does all three things through the Voting and Elections Modernization Act. The measure has three provisions. First, it allows for online voter registration and makes it easier for people to change their registration status when they move within the state. Second, it creates a structure for in-person early voting. Third, it prevents anyone other than guardians and immediate family members from delivering ballots for Rhode Island residents.

In short, this bill promises to make democratic participation easier at a lower cost while making the system more secure from fraud.

Rhode Island lags behind many of its neighbors in terms of ease of voting. Twenty-six states, including Connecticut and Massachusetts have passed legislation to allow citizens to register to vote online.

Voter-registration status is one of the largest predictors of voting, especially for Millennials. Online voter registration has a record of boosting youth voter turnout. Arizona, the first state to enact online voter registration, has seen registration rates of 18-24 year olds increase from 29 percent to 53 percent.

Online voter registration also allows people - and particularly Millennials who move at the highest rates of any generation - to change their addresses. Many young people often miss elections after they move because they do not know that they either have to re-register in a new precinct when they move, or travel home to vote.

Moreover, for the politically in tune, tasks like registering to vote are straight forward, but for traditionally low voting groups, such as minorities and Millennials, registering to vote online is more accessible than figuring out how and where to go in person. Removing barriers for disenfranchised groups gives way to broader political engagement and a more diverse, fruitful civic discourse.

My organization, Common Sense Action, which recently merged with Run for America, is working to boost civic engagement in states across the country by not only registering people to vote, but also by sending them reminders about elections and election deadlines and educating our communities on the issues. Our chapters facilitated the registration, educated, and reminded over 3500 young voters to vote last election cycle through TurboVote. In the states that had online voter registration, we could simply direct folks to their state's page, and they could vote on Election Day. In states without the online system, people had to fill out a form print it out, sign it, stamp it, address it, and send it back to the state.

Moreover, online voter registration saves money. As Rhode Island faces large pension liabilities and tight budgets, governments should be looking for ways to cut costs. Online voter registration does just that. According to the Pew Charitable, states that have implemented online voter registration systems save between $0.50 and $2.34 per voter compared to the paper-system. California reported savings of around $2 million. Online voter-registration not only projects to boost participation and enfranchisement, but it also offers an opportunity for RI to save money.

This legislation's other benefits also project to help Millennials across the state. It will phase-in a process for in-person early-voting on weekends, which would allow RI to join 32 other states that have adapted their election laws for 21st century schedules. And, it will reduce the number of people eligible to handle ballots to reduce opportunities for fraud. All of these provisions are in line with bipartisan recommendations made by the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration, which now lives at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

It is time to empower the electorate by bringing Rhode Island's election law into the 21st century.