Academic journal article Stanford Law & Policy Review

Online Voter Registration in Oregon: Towards an Election Administration Triple Bottom Line

Academic journal article Stanford Law & Policy Review

Online Voter Registration in Oregon: Towards an Election Administration Triple Bottom Line

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

If hanging chads and provisional ballots were the top election administration controversies of the 2000 and 2004 elections, then voter registration was undoubtedly the defining issue of the historic 2008 election. (1) States were flooded with more than 60 million voter registration applications between 2006 and 2008. (2) Legal clashes over the actions of registration drives and purging practices of statewide voter registration databases saw progressives decrying unnecessarily restrictive policies that could result in eligible registrants left off the rolls, while conservative groups invoked the specter of fraudulently obtained registrations. (3)

At the center of this massive logistical challenge and rash of bitterly contested litigation was the humble paper voter registration card, delivered by the millions to county elections offices to be processed, transcribed, and matched to driver's license or social security records. The system of paper-based voter registration is both enormously expensive and prone to human error at every step along the way: registrants commonly omit required information and write illegibly, and county elections offices inevitably commit transcription errors. (4) Millions of voter registrations that can't be matched to government records are the natural result, which threatens the right of qualified registrants to cast a ballot on Election Day and fuels fears of fraudulent voter registration practices.

Partisan conflict over election administration practices shows no sign of abating. But online voter registration, a recent election administration policy innovation pioneered by state legislatures, promises to bridge the partisan divide and unite election reformers, budget hawks, and voter fraud watchers around an election administration triple bottom line (5): increasing participation, decreasing costs, and improving integrity.

Online voter registration went live in Arizona by 2002, but it wasn't until 2008 that the state of Washington had joined Arizona in rolling out a system of its own. By the end of 2009, Oregon, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Utah, and California had passed online voter registration legislation, and at least four other state legislatures had introduced bills proposing similar systems. (6) While online voter registration has attracted press coverage and praise from commentators across the political spectrum, (7) it has received limited analysis by academics and policy experts. (8) This Note focuses on online voter registration legislation in Oregon as a case study of the second wave of states to adopt such a system. (9)

Online voter registration enhances Oregon's traditional, paper-based voter registration system in three primary ways. First, online registration lowers barriers to registration and decreases errors in the registration process. In these respects, Oregon House Bill 2386 aimed to boost overall rates of registration and turnout among eligible voters generally, and young voters in particular.

Second, online voter registration eliminates the need for costly data entry and processing of paper voter registration cards, yielding considerable savings to cash-strapped state and local governments.

Third, when combined with well-designed statewide voter registration databases, (10) electronic data transaction standards, and eligibility verification processes, online voter registration further reduces the already low risk of voter registration fraud and helps ensure the integrity of ballots cast on election day.

I. BROAD SUPPORT FOR OREGON'S ONLINE VOTER REGISTRATION BILL

Oregon's reputation as an innovator in election administration stems from its first-in-the-nation adoption of a statewide vote-by-mail system, credited with increasing turnout among registered voters, reducing costs, and increasing election security. (11) But vote-by-mail's requirement that a voter have her current residence address on file in order to receive a ballot negatively affects the participation of highly mobile populations: young people, low income people, recent immigrants, and communities of color, in particular. …

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