Slate, the Industry Standard, and washingtonpost.com join forces to examine the effect of the Internet on Campaign 2000.
The Internet's best-documented role in this presidential election has been its ability to arm voters with information. But that information won't do much good if voters aren't registered on Election Day. Here, too, the Net is stepping up, with numerous sites offering a hybrid form of voter registration that enables citizens to cut through red tape and complete forms in just a few minutes.
To think that the combination of information and simplified voter registration online will increase civic participation from its dismal state four years ago is probably overly optimistic. But even a little improvement is better than nothing.
"A significant barrier to people voting is their difficulty in registration," says Steve Schneider, editor of Net Election, the Web site of the Annenberg School of Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania. "Any way you make registration easier for people has got to have the effect of increasing voting, even if it's a small amount."
Reports from the handful of companies that offer online registration, as well as the Federal Election Commission, indicate that they are indeed making a small dent in increasing the number of registered voters.
Election.com, which offers a detailed chart to guide Web surfers through the maze of state registration deadlines, has counted about 500,000 people who have registered at both its site and about 100 affiliate sites that link to Election.com, such as Voter.com or the voter-tools page on Republican presidential candidate and Texas Gov. George W. Bush's Web site.
Election.com lets voters complete forms online, but the behind-the-scenes operation of that effort is still decidedly low-tech. Employees still must print out the appropriate forms and mail them to citizens, who then must sign the forms and snail mail them to state governments. That convoluted system is required by law in order to comply with state regulations about card stock and signatures, which are designed to prevent fraud, says Diane Baker, a marketing associate with Garden City, N.Y.-based Election.com.
David Biddulph, president of OnlineDemocracy.com, is reluctant to release figures for visitors to the site registering to vote, pointing out that there is no way to know whether people who sign up for registration forms actually mail them in. Unlike Election.com, OnlineDemocracy lets prospective voters print out forms at their desk in just a few minutes and immediately mail them to the states. Biddulph says his company negotiated with election officials from each state to get approval for that arrangement, which he acknowledges is still a hybrid because ultimately, voters still must use snail-mail to send in their signed forms.
Other online voter registration sites include OnlineDemocracy, based in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., which introduced a co-branded version of its online voter registration in May on ABCNews.com's politics page, and BeAVoter.org, which already has shut down since the deadline to register before the election already has passed. Subsidized by America Online, WorldCom, and the AARP, the site recorded 160,000 people who filled out online voter registration forms, thanks in part to links from its sponsors, as well as from the sites of Vice President Al Gore and Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader.
BeAVoter's early closure is the most vivid evidence of the Web's shortcomings when it comes to online voter registration. But with the e-signature bill enacted Oct. 1, complete online registration might not be that far off.
"It's just crazy—you fill out a form online that has to be mailed to you," says Kevin Rooney, who directed BeAVoter.org for Capitol Advantage, a company that publishes congressional directories and that spearheaded the effort. "This was a great, great first step, but I think that it will probably change quickly."
Rooney and others predict that complete voter registration will arrive on the Web by the next presidential election. But others are not so sure.
Peggy Fimms, election research specialist at the Federal Election Commission, notes that local election departments require an original hard-copy signature for other election tasks beyond voter registration. For instance, a local election department might compare the signature to another signature on a ballot petition or even a voter's signature at the polling booth in order to prevent fraud.
"The state of California did look at online voter registration, and they quickly dumped it," Fimms says. "There were significant voter-fraud concerns for one thing."
But that isn't stopping the FEC from offering its own hybrid online voter registration form, which still requires voters to mail in the signed form. Hits on the FEC's national voter registration form have soared as the election approaches. Total hits in the first five days of October already reached 50,000, compared with 71,000 in September and an average of 12,000 to 15,000 hits per month in the summer, according to the FEC.