Online Voter Registration: A Big Little Idea

Online Voter Registration: A Big Little Idea

Online Voter Registration: A Big Little Idea

Tracking politics as it's practiced on the Web.
Jan. 26 2000 3:30 AM

Online Voter Registration: A Big Little Idea

{{Industy Standard Gif#34651}} Slate and the Industry Standard join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.

{{Slate's Political Roundup#73099}}

Online voting is the killer app of Net politics. The prospect of e-voting is enthralling journalists (including Slate writers here and here), causing governments to fret about digital signatures, and inspiring endless speculation about how online ballots will eventually revolutionize politics. It is the big idea that will change voting a huge amount someday.

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But a startup called Newvoter.com has a little idea that could change voting a small amount now. Its online voter registration application could boost voter turnout and save grass-roots organizations and candidates money and effort.

Online voter registration, at this point, isn't quite what it sounds like. You cannot register to vote online. The concern about digital signature verification that is delaying online voting prevents online registration as well. What you can do now, however, is register to register online. If you are a Florida resident, for example, you can go to a state Web site and complete the Florida voter registration application. After you complete the online application, Florida mails you a voter registration form with your information already filled in. You sign the form and return it to your county election supervisor. It's not quite point-and-click registration, but it does save voters a trip to the library, post office, or department of motor vehicles. (Several companies, including Onlinedemocracy.com and Election.com, want to sell such online registration services to states.)

Ultimately, online voter registration (even in its current form) is most promising not because it saves time and money for voters and governments, though it does. Online registration really serves those who conduct voter registration drives. Grass-roots organizations, political parties, and candidates routinely spend enormous sums of money and time on voter registration drives without any guarantee that they are helping their cause. Organizations that sign up voters can't stay in touch with them, can't remind the newly registered to vote, and can't ensure that the new voters will remember their cause if they do vote. A voter registration drive is "high-maintenance, it's labor-intensive, it's high-effort," says Mark Strama, co-founder and CEO of Newvoter.com. "And, typically, after you register someone to vote in the field, you lose touch with them."

Newvoter.com proposes to change that. The company offers itself as a kind of online registration middleman. Instead of conducting its own voter registration campaign, a candidate or organization—let's say, for convenience's sake, Greenpeace—buys Newvoter.com's application and puts it up on its own home page. Any person who visits the Greenpeace Web site will be encouraged to register to vote.

The company's application, which is currently available at the Rock the Vote site for what Strama calls a "test run," follows the Florida model described above, except that Newvoter.com's online application form can be used for 46 states and the District of Columbia. (Mississippi, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and Wyoming are the exceptions.) After completing Newvoter.com's online form, voters are mailed a printed registration form and an envelope addressed to their local election office. They proofread it, sign it, add a stamp, and drop it in the mail.

Newvoter.com's innovation is to keep track of registrants. When Greenpeace registers a voter at a concert or on a campus, it loses touch with her immediately. But if she registers on Greenpeace's Web site, Newvoter.com and Greenpeace can stay in contact with her. Five days after Newvoter.com mails the official registration form to the voter, she receives an e-mail reminding her to look for the form and noting that she is not registered to vote until it is signed and returned. Six weeks before the election, an e-mail arrives asking her if she plans to be in town for the election and providing instructions for acquiring an absentee ballot. One week before the election, she receives a customized get-out-the-vote e-mail. Newvoter.com will also allow voters to join a mailing list sponsored by the organization or candidate—the reminder e-mails are sent directly by Newvoter.com—allowing Greenpeace to mail her too.

Newvoter.com hasn't brought its service to the market yet, or even settled on its exact business plan—Strama says a "big announcement" is coming soon—but the company plans to sell its service to grass-roots political organizations and candidates across the political spectrum.

Strama, who was Rock the Vote's director of programs, thinks Newvoter.com is more likely to boost voter turnout than either traditional voter drives or motor-voter registration. People who register to vote when they are engaged by a political Web site are more likely to turn out than folks who register while waiting in line at the DMV. And people are more likely to vote if they are reminded close to Election Day about the issue that made them register in the first place. It's not going to revolutionize politics, but it may send a few more people to the polls to cast a ballot for a cause they care about.