Aye for Modernizing Voting: As Lawmakers Look for Ways to Improve Elections, They're Looking at Tech Nology-Even If They Don't Know It

By Underhill, Wendy; Buchanan, Amanda | State Legislatures, October-November 2017 | Go to article overview

Aye for Modernizing Voting: As Lawmakers Look for Ways to Improve Elections, They're Looking at Tech Nology-Even If They Don't Know It


Underhill, Wendy, Buchanan, Amanda, State Legislatures


The election of 2016 was the best one to date--administratively speaking. Lines were shorter than in 2012, machine malfunctions were few and far between, no one ran out of ballots, and results in key races weren't delayed for days.

Despite these successes, talk of modernizing voting systems continues and concerns about cyberattacks persist. At least half the states are, or soon will be, undertaking the complex process of procuring new election technology to replace the aging equipment that has been used for years to cast and tabulate votes.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle want to improve how Americans vote, from ensuring that only eligible voters are on the rolls to making sure hackers can't break in. They also want to make it easier to cast ballots and transfer records from motor vehicle agencies to voter rolls.

And all of this involves technology. Whatever policy goals lawmakers have for improving elections will require the right technology, in terms of costs, convenience, accuracy and security.

The Goal: Cleaning Up Voter Rolls

The concept is simple: Ensure that only eligible voters are listed on voter registration rolls. But reaching that goal isn't so simple. For one thing, the National Voter Registration Act prohibits voters from being removed from the rolls without their permission, unless reliable information shows they have moved or died. Even with reliable information, federal law dictates how and when voters can be removed.

Automation, however, is making it easier for state officials to find inconsistencies and inaccuracies in data when searching prison files, health records, death notices and jury records. Interstate compacts, such as the Electronic Registration Information Center or the Interstate Crosscheck (run through the Kansas secretary of state's office), allow voter records to be checked against records in other states, and against a host of other lists.

"Having a clean and accurate registration list is very important and serves to ensure that we aren't unnecessarily registering individuals," says Wisconsin Representative Kathy Bernier (R), chair of the Assembly committee on elections. In Wisconsin, officials send electors a postcard verifying election registration data that comes from the ERIC system to crosscheck for potential multiple registrations.

The Goal: Streamlining "Motor Voter" Operations

When Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act in 1993, the internet was in its infancy and email was a novelty. Called the "motor voter" law, this federal mandate requires local motor vehicle agencies, in all but six states, to provide opportunities for voters to register, which, when it passed, meant offering paper applications.

Many states are going above and beyond the letter of the law today by automating the transfer of data between motor vehicle and voter registration agencies. How they go about it comes in two flavors: opt in and opt out.

The opt-in model was pioneered by the Delaware Division of Motor Vehicles. Those who come in to the DMV are asked, "Would you like to register to vote?" If the answer is "yes," the office automatically transmits the person's data to the voter registration agency. Those who decline must sign a declination form on the signature pad. Registered voters may also change their political party at the DMV. The process is easy one-stop shopping for the voter and far less work for the staff.

California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and the District of Columbia have recently adopted the opt-in version.

Oregon took the other route, becoming the first opt-out state. There, a person who goes to the DMV and provides all the key information is automatically registered to vote. If they don't want to be registered, or they want to select a political party, they must fill out a postcard and return it to the secretary of state. …

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