The Next Frontier In Voting Rights: Online Voter Registration

For all of the fringe theorizing that our president was not born in the United States, one fact remains about his election in 2008: seven in ten adult Americans did not vote for Barack Obama. And Obama’s 30 percent far surpassed the vote percentages of his predecessors: Bush (28 percent and 25 percent), Clinton (24 percent twice), and Bush Sr. (27 percent). Indeed, even in an election that many considered the most important in their lifetime, nearly 100 million voting-age Americans skipped the ballot box in 2008.

A chief reason why people don’t vote is quite simple: they aren’t registered. Indeed, while approximately 57 percent of voting-eligible adults cast their ballots in 2008, turnout among those who were registered to vote topped 70 percent. In 2006, the disparity was even more pronounced: turnout was 20 points higher for eligible adult citizens who were registered to vote compared to those who weren’t. Yet more than 40 states bar their citizens from registering on Election Day; many states require citizens to register a month before an election.

One way in which states are trying to combat low voter turnout is by allowing citizens to register to vote online. Currently, most states require voter registration forms to be submitted in hard copy. However, 11 states across the ideological spectrum have opted to permit residents to register via the Internet. These states include:

– Alaska- Arizona- California*- Colorado- Indiana- Kansas- Louisiana- Nevada (Clark County only)- Oregon- Utah- Washington

Numerous other states have also introduced legislation to enable online voter registration, including Hawaii, Nebraska, Maryland, and Mississippi.

Erin Ferns Lee of Project Vote lays out the benefits of online voter registration:

Electronic registration is purportedly cost-effective: in Maricopa County, Arizona, for example, an electronic application reportedly costs about $0.03, compared to $0.83 per paper registration. With only 77 percent of voting eligible Americans registered to vote in 2008, online voter registration may be a welcome reform, particularly for young Americans who are simultaneously the most likely to have Internet access (88%) but least likely to be registered to vote (61%), according to a 2009 Project Vote memo by consultant, Jody Herman.

The Pew Center on the States also studied Arizona and Washington’s experiences with online voter registration during the 2008 election. They found that online registration boosted younger voters, a group that has traditionally exhibited low turnout. In addition, Pew found that the system increased voter list accuracy, streamlined the process for government officials, and enjoyed overwhelming public support.


Citizens are already permitted to pay taxes and register for Selective Service online; barring voter registration from the Web makes little sense. Indeed, modernizing our voter registration methods is nothing new. In 1993, President Clinton signed the National Voter Registration Act (popularly known as the “Motor Voter Act”) which allowed for voter registration at government agencies like the DMV. Eighteen years later, it is time for more states to take the next step and update their registration systems by allowing for online voter registration.

Thanks to Erin Ferns Lee of Project Vote for research assistance.

*- California is projected to implement online voter registration in 2012. The legislation has passed, but it will not go into effect until the state complies with the 2002 Help America Vote Act’s statewide voter registration database provision.