Online Voter Registration Now Live in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is the 23rd state to implement online voter registration.

by Nicole C. Brambila and Ford Turner, Reading Eagle, Pa. / August 28, 2015

(TNS) -- Within the first three hours of going live, Pennsylvania's new online voter registration system had logged 200 registrants.

Officials conservatively estimated the state would top out at 300 online voter registrations, which is not bad for a social media campaign without a budget, said Wanda Murren, Pennsylvania Department of State press secretary.

On Thursday, Gov. Tom Wolf announced the launch of a new system allowing Pennsylvanians to register to vote online.

Online voter registration isn't new in other parts of the country.

The Keystone State becomes the 23rd state to allow online voter registration. Online registration will soon be available in five more states and the District of Columbia. Arizona first implemented its online voter registration in 2002.

Despite bitter battles over election laws, most recently a voter ID law that was later overturned after a court battle, experts don't expect the move to electronic registration in Pennsylvania to draw partisan skirmishes.

"It's not a controversial issue; it's being done in the deepest red states and blue states," said David Becker, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts' Election Initiatives, which conducts analysis and advocacy on election issues.

"Pennsylvania is very much in the mainstream on this," he added.

Becker predicted in the next couple of years that it will be more unusual for states not to allow residents to register to vote online. "Like any other innovation, there are states that are leaders and other states that are waiting to see how things work out," Becker said.

Expected savings

At the unveiling, Wolf touted the savings the commonwealth could expect by going electronic.

In May, a Pew Charitable Trusts study found states using online voter registration have saved from 50 cents to $2.34 per application. Although no estimates for the commonwealth were available, proponents say Pennsylvania counties would likely save on processing, return mail and additional personnel costs during registration drives.

Maricopa County in Arizona, which includes Phoenix, saved more than $1 million over five years in registration costs by permitting voters to register online.

"Almost half of the registrations are coming from people in their pajamas," said Matt Roberts, a spokesman for the Arizona Secretary of State. "That to us is a smashing success."

Moving from pencil, paper and postage to electronic registration is also expected to eliminate inaccurate and invalid records. A 2012 Pew study found 12.7 million records nationwide were out-of-date with 1.8 million on the voter rolls no longer living.

Online voter registration "has support from county election officials because it will improve accuracy, increase the integrity of the voting rolls, reduce time-consuming data entry and yield considerable cost savings," Secretary of State Pedro Cortés said in a statement.

Most states have spent less than $300,000 for online voter registration systems. Pennsylvania's online registration system cost roughly $200,000, Murren said.

A quicker system

Following the system's debut Thursday, Debbie Olivieri, elections director for Berks County, welcomed moving from the antiquated paper forms the county uses to electronic entries.

"It is quicker to process," Olivieri said. "It is a lot easier to process them than hundreds and hundreds of registration forms."

Berks has about 239,000 registered voters.

Thursday's kickoff featured an online form for prospective registrants. The information is relayed electronically to county voter registration offices in a way that complements - but doesn't replace - the existing system.

"We are excited about this," said Olivieri, who noted Berks has received four new registrations and five registration changes online. "We are hoping everything goes well."

Olivieri was among the officials in three counties who spoke with at least guarded optimism about the new system.

In Montgomery County, where there are more than 534,000 registered voters, county spokesman Frank Custer called the system a positive move to get more voters in the system.

"Obviously, we are happy," Custer said.

In Lancaster County - which has about 320,000 registered voters - Randall Wenger, the county's clerk of the board of elections, said the system should work very nicely for people whose signatures are already on file with the state through PennDOT.

Wenger and the Berks and Montgomery officials stressed that people who do not have a Pennsylvania driver's license - and consequently have not given the state a digitally stored signature - will have to fill out a signature card and mail it to the state.

Legislative reaction

Wolf is launching online registration without legislative approval, and administration officials say the governor's office has the authority to do so.

Although the majority of states that have adopted online registration did so through legislation, not all have. At least three other states - Arizona, Delaware and Kansas - adopted online voter registration without legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Some local Republican state lawmakers did not voice outright objections to the system unveiled by Wolf, a Democrat.

"In an electronic age, it makes sense for a segment of the population to register electronically if we have proper safeguards and validation steps," said Rep. Mark Gillen, a Robeson Township Republican.

Rep. Jerry Knowles, a Schuylkill County Republican who represents part of Berks County, said he was still concerned about the potential for fraud, this time in registration.

"Our constitution clearly says one person, one vote, and we need to be absolutely sure that is what happens," Knowles said. "We need to make sure the person who is claiming to be registering, is indeed that person."

Knowles said he spoke to Republican House leadership on Thursday and believed they were evaluating the new system.

"We need to be certain what the parameters are in moving forward with this," he said.

Pennsylvania Republicans were behind passage of one of the nation's strictest voter-identification laws, which sought to require nearly all the commonwealth's 8 million-plus voters to show photo ID at the polls. The 2012 law, which received no Democratic support, was struck down by a Pennsylvania judge last year and abandoned when then-Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, decided not to appeal.

Neither state Rep. Daryl D. Metcalfe, the Butler County Republican who sponsored Pennsylvania's voter ID law in 2012, nor House Speaker Mike Turzai, who famously said Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney would win Pennsylvania because of it, responded to multiple phone calls seeking comment about online voter registration.

Gillen said it would be difficult to imagine that significant savings could be accompanied without reductions in work force at some government offices, since the move would reduce the demand for work by paid personnel.

"It would seem to me you are going to have less servers at the counter," he said. "You are complementing the system but I don't think you are replacing it entirely."

Still, Gillen said he had two teenaged daughters and that they were likely to register online.

©2015 the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pa.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.