With November elections on the horizon, Santa Clara County made a strategic move last Friday, May 14, when its Registrar of Voters became the first in the nation to accept electronic signatures for voter registrations.
The decision came after Verafirma, a Silicon Valley technology company, pitched the idea to use the county as a test bed for its e-signature system. Using the National Voter Registration Act form on the company's website, the software captures a "secure electronic signature" that the registrant writes on an iPad, iPhone or another mobile touchscreen device. Created to eradicate issues with the pen-and-clipboard method of years past, advocates said this historic and innovative approach could forever change the process of voter registration.
"Being in Silicon Valley, we're proud of our efforts to promote electronic voter registration," said Elaine Larson, assistant registrar of voters for Santa Clara County, "and make it available to everybody to register to vote in a safe and secure manner."
So far, five people have used the free service and signed voter registration forms electronically at a table set up at San Jose State University. Three of the five were re-registration forms with information that was "really clear and better than what we have on file," Larson said.
Santa Clara County's effort represents the latest wave in a broader movement to modernize voter registration systems across the country. By using the Internet and new technology, state and local governments hope to reduce voter registration costs and mistakes created from processing paper files.
In recent years, more and more states have been exploring online voter registration systems, which link data obtained at motor vehicle divisions to state election offices, said Michael Slater, executive director of Project Vote, one of the nation's leading voter engagement organizations. Project Vote estimates that at least 10 states will have online voter registration by the end of 2010.
Electronic signatures elevate this trend, giving people the option to fill out the voter registration form from anywhere, anytime. Of course, this method may raise security concerns and fears of voter registration fraud. But Slater called the Santa Clara County system a forward-thinking, efficient "innovation of convenience," which makes online registration available to anybody with minimal risk.
"I'm sure that there are some tech experts that would find security and privacy concerns," he said. "Is it worth the modest risk? Unless someone convinces me otherwise, I'd say why not."
Oregon spent approximately $8.8 million -- or $4.11 per active registered voter -- on its voter registration system during the 2008 election, according to a recent report by The Pew Center on the States.
Conducted by the Pew Center on the States with assistance of Oregon state and local election officials, researchers tout this landmark case study as the first publicly available, detailed compilation of state voter registration costs. Variations in state laws and differences in duties between state and local election officials make it tricky to obtain such figures.
But with Oregon's real numbers under the microscope, The Real Cost of Voter Registration puts state dollars into perspective to help states estimate their expenses and figure out how to modernize efforts, according to John Lindback, senior officer for Election Initiatives at the Pew Center on the States and former Oregon state election director.
"States need to analyze their current voter registration costs before they can determine effective ways to modernize the process," Lindback said in a statement. "A good starting point is to use 21st-century technology that will not only make registration less expensive, but also more efficient and accurate."
With electronic voter registration, states can cut costs significantly. In Phoenix, for example, it costs at least 83 cents to process a
paper registration form, but it only costs about 3 cents for online registration. The Washington Office of Secretary of State saves 25 cents per online application while counties save between 50 cents and $2 per online application compared to paper forms, according to research by the Pew Center on the States.
Delaware, the Pew report noted, reduced its labor costs "by $200,000 annually with its e-signature practice that requires every visitor to the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) to register to vote, update their record or decline to do so and then electronically syncs the data with the state election office."
The pen-and-paper model of collecting information has already faded away in various other sectors, so why not voter registration?
"You can apply for a mortgage online. You can get a car without signing a piece of paper. In the software industry, you can click 'I Accept' to download a document," said Michael Marubio, co-founder of Verafirma. "The last vestige of the all-paper process is the local government."
The traditional paper-based method requires thousands of pieces of paper that must be filled out, collected, checked, entered into the system and delivered to election officials.
When it comes to transitioning to an electronic system, Marubio believes it's a matter of education. That means informing people who may not understand the concept of an electronic signature or have concerns about security. Verafirma knew election officials would support the idea in Santa Clara County, home to Silicon Valley tech pioneers such as Apple and Google.
In Santa Clara County, you can visit the Verafirma site, fill out the voter registration form and sign it using a mobile touchscreen device. The company will e-mail you a "tamper-proof" PDF document, which you then e-mail to the registrar. Once Verafirma sends the locked PDF, Marubio said, the company purges the system of any data. An audit trail tracks the registrant's experience, which includes the IP address, the location of the mobile device, the time it took to fill out the form and encrypted stroke data on the signature, he said.
"Did you dot your i's midway through the signature or at the very end?" he said. "Did you cross your t's from left to right or right to left?"
Bounded to each document, this data helps prevent fraud because election officials can trace the information back to its original source. For example, officials would see red flags if 10,000 electronic forms came into the system from the same IP address. But, Marubio said, "If 10,000 paper documents were dumped on your doorstep, it would be difficult to identify intentional fraud."
It took about two years to get the system launched in Santa Clara County. The company and county officials had to work through the technical and legal issues. Voter registration statutes vary from state to state and sometimes between counties, but he said 18 states would allow a system with e-signatures on mobile devices for voter registration.
"If there was any county that would have the technical know-how to understand this system, it was Santa Clara," he said. "Our plan here is to expand to all counties in California and the 17 other states. Everyone, I think, agrees on the inevitability. We just hope it's sooner rather than later."
Signing a voter registration form on an iPad or an iPhone may represent the next step of electronic voter registration. But the movement has roots in 2002 when Arizona launched its online voter registration system.
Arizona implemented the system through its Motor Vehicle Division, which allows residents to make updates to motor vehicle and voter registration records at the same time. In 2008, Washington state implemented a similar online voter registration system, but is maintained by the Office of the Secretary of State and data only "flows
in one direction from the driver's license records to the state Elections Division," according to a Pew Center on the States study released in April.
Ever since a federal law required states to upgrade databases to centralize electronic records, Slater said, election officials have been able to communicate with DMVs in ways that were impossible before. Passed in response to the nearly 2 million ballots that were disqualified in the 2000 election debacle, Slater said the Help America Vote Act of 2002 set the stage for the current electronic voter registration trend.
"You don't complete another piece of paper," he said. "The information is just pulled out of the fields that you already filled out, making it a seamless process from the point of view of the applicant."
But for these systems, residents can only register to vote if they have a state driver's license or state identification card number. This restriction, Slater added, primarily affects people who are "underrepresented in the electorate, particularly low-income individuals, people of color and youth."
To boost registration rates, Project Vote recently teamed up with Echo Interaction Group to create a mobile-based application universally compatible with all iPhone, BlackBerry, and Symbian-based operating systems, including the iPad. Set to debut this month, the app will collect, process and upload voter registration data to state election officials. This will not only streamline the voter registration process, Slater said, but also decrease costly and timely mistakes that lead to rejected or duplicate forms.
It remains to be seen whether other counties and states will sign off on Santa Clara County's innovative e-signature strategy, but the move gives municipalities a potential model to follow.
"I think it is fantastic that this happened, and we'll have a role model for people to look at and emulate," Slater said. "Whether states will move in that direction is complicated to predict."