Just about everywhere in the U.S. you can now file your taxes online, pay for parking tickets, update your driver's license and registration, and conduct various other types of government business.
But one thing you can't do is register to vote.
Only 2 of our 50 states, Arizona and Washington, give its citizens the ability to register to vote online. This is not an impressive showing for the birthplace of the Internet and the driver of global technological innovation.
It's especially disappointing, election officials say, because online registration is efficient and encourages more people to register.
"As technology marches forward in virtually all other aspects of the election process, the methods of registration remain firmly entrenched in the 20th century," a study released by electiononline.org noted.
How did Arizona and Washington manage to break out of the outdated "ink, paper, stamp, and mail process" for voter registration? Their story should be required reading for the other 48 states.
"Washington activated online voter registration to make it more convenient for citizens to register to vote when it was convenient for them," Brian Zylstra, a spokesman for the Washington's Office of the Secretary of State, said in an interview. He said people conduct so many personal transactions online that they expect the same level of customer service from government.
Although many states let residents download voter forms from the Internet, they still must be printed and mailed to local election offices. Arizona was the first state to eliminate this process when they introduced EZ Voter, an online registration site, in July 2002.
"It has been a goal of my administration from the very beginning to get more Arizonans registered to vote," Arizona Secretary of State Jan Brewer said. "Making voter registration easy really helps ensure that everyone has an opportunity to participate in our democratic process."
And participate they have. After introducing EZ Voter, Arizona saw nearly a 10 percent increase in voter registration between 2002 and 2004. That's hundreds of thousands of new voters joining the democratic process just in one state.
Even more impressive: 72 percent of all Arizona voter registrations in 2007 were completed online, up from 25 percent in 2003.
Washington followed suit when the Secretary of State Sam Reed requested that the Legislature approve a bill allowing online voter registration. The bill was passed in 2007 and went into effect on Jan. 1, 2008. "People do so much business now online that this is kind of a normal way many people want to transact their business, including with government and voter registration -- and this is particularly true with young people," Reed told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Since January, the state has registered more than 31,000 people and over half are between 18-30 years old.
If Arizona and Washington have been so successful with their online approach, why aren't more states implementing their own registration sites?
Many states remain concerned over privacy, security, and fraud, stalling plans to introduce similar online systems. In its study, electiononline.org cited a California Internet Voting Task Force report which stated that an online voter registration system would be "an invitation to automated, large-scale vote fraud."
"Often it is difficult for state legislatures to trust that an online service dealing with sensitive information such as this can be secure, and will at the same time not allow ineligible people to be placed on the voter rolls," Zylstra says.
Arizona and Washington both require online registrants to possess either a valid driver's license or state ID card. This ensures that the state has a digitized signature in their databases, which can be used later to confirm eligible voters.
"One of the most effective arguments used to convince Washington's legislators that online voter registration is more secure than mail-in voter registration applications was the fact that a person had to appear before a Department of Licensing agent in order to get a driver's license or state ID card before they could use the online voter registration system," Zylstra said.
However, officials from both Arizona and Washington insist that their residents have nothing to worry about when they log on to register. Zylstra says that Washington has no cases of online voter registration fraud and that the system uses the same technology that banks use to encrypt and protect personal information.
Likewise, the Arizona Office of the Secretary of State Web site insists that "all confidential records are kept locked inside an ‘electronic vault' protected by IBM's most advanced security technologies and among the most comprehensive security programs and services in the industry."
But other concerns remain as well. A 2004 security analysis conducted of the US Department of Defense's "Secure Electronic Registration and Voting Experiment" questioned whether Web sites would be able to handle the heavy online traffic during registration deadlines. Arizona recently saw a glitch in its system when its Web site went down the day of the registration deadline this past January. Fortunately for residents, the site was properly working by the end of the day.
Still, officials from both states consider the implementation of online voter registration a success and expect other states to follow in their footsteps.
"Just like Arizona, Washington's state government leaders look to use innovative ways to make government more accessible and efficient for its citizens," Zylstra says. "We believe that making online voter registration available to people is another way to accomplish this objective. As more Washingtonians use our online voter registration system, more states will see the benefits of this system and will eventually emulate it."
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