It may have been brief, but California’s one-month experiment with online voter registration running up to the November general election told us a lot. In particular, it told us that if there was any doubt about citizen desire to register online, California’s experience erased it.
From the time the new registration system opened online on Sept. 19 to its close on Oct. 21, more than half of the 1.2 million voters who registered did so through the new online system. It was undoubtedly the state’s most popular voter registration option.
“We thought that was quite striking,” says Mindy Romero, project director for the California Civic Engagement Project. The research organization, part of the Center for Regional Change at the University of California, Davis, is combing through the November numbers to measure the impact of online registration on the state’s electorate. Based on what the group has seen so far, Romero says it’s likely that online registration will be the state’s dominant voter registration option from now on.
Although online registration was popular with all registrants, it was particularly effective at pulling younger citizens into the state’s voting pool. Residents under age 25 accounted for 30 percent of all online registrants -- helping to drive an 8 percent increase in voter registration in that age bracket, Romero says.
Online registrants also went to the polls, she added, contradicting the notion that citizens using a more convenient registration option may be too lazy or apathetic to cast a ballot. Instead, voters who registered online turned out at a higher rate -- about 8 percentage points higher -- than those who registered through other methods.
It’s less clear, however, what online registration means for California’s major political parties. The online registration numbers did buck one major trend among the state’s general electorate that shows declining voter identification with either of the major political parties. The author of California’s online registration law, state Sen. Leland Yee, a San Francisco Democrat, noted late last year that almost 50 percent of voters using the online system registered as Democrats, while slightly less than 20 percent registered as Republicans. That’s even more lopsided than California’s general electorate, which favors Democrats over the GOP by a margin of about 44 percent to 30 percent.
Of course, the tilt could be explained, in part, by the age group registering. As noted earlier, residents under age 25 accounted for 30 percent of all online registrants. It has long been held that younger voters tend to be more liberal, a belief borne out by the Pew Research Survey’s analysis of the youth vote in the 2012 elections. In winning re-election, President Obama won 60 percent of the vote among those younger than 30.
Romero agrees that online registrants leaned more heavily Democratic than the state’s general voter population, but she says the online sample size -- about 600,000 out of more than 18 million registered California voters -- is simply too small to generate any conclusions. “We were a bit surprised by the party differences between online registrants and the general electorate,” Romero says. “But we’re not sure if that’ll hold up.”
Time will tell which political party, if any, benefits from online registration. Meanwhile the new method is a clear winner for voters. California’s rapid adoption of online registration -- and higher voting rates for online registrants -- offers a compelling argument for changes that make it easier for citizens to join the voting pool. That’s particularly true for younger voters.
California’s experience also shows that citizens may not be as apathetic about elections as some people fear. In other words, if you give citizens a better process, it appears they’ll not only register, they’ll also vote.
This story was originally published in GOVERNING magazine