Politics

Is online voter registration more secure?

Florida lawmakers have overhauled many aspects of our elections laws in recent years, but one aspect has remained untouched: Voters can’t register online.

The statewide association of elections supervisors, which represents officials in both major parties, wants legislators to change that during the upcoming session. Supporters argue that one of the benefits is that it’s more secure.

“This is actually just simply a more secure, accurate and cost-efficient way of doing voter registration,” Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said at a Senate Ethics and Elections committee hearing Jan. 20. Clemens is sponsoring a bill for the upcoming session.

Pasco Supervisor of Elections Brian Corley, a Republican in favor of online registration, made similar remarks at the hearing. Citing information from a former elections official in Arizona — the first state to use online registration — Corley said that “there is a reduction in fraud.”

Is online registration more secure? We decided to check it out.

Today, Florida voters fill out a paper form and submit it to a county elections official, or an entity such as a third-party group can submit it for them. Additionally, under the National Voting Rights Act (also known as “Motor Voter”), a person can verbally relay their voter registration information while applying for a driver’s license.

Traditional paper registration opens up the window for fraud or errors in multiple ways, according to Tammy Patrick, an elections expert at the Bipartisan Policy Center and former elections official in Maricopa County, Arizona. Some voters hand over personal information to strangers who sign up voters, and it may sit around somewhere until submitted several days or weeks later. Then elections officials have to decipher the forms and input the information. (In Florida, third parties must submit forms within 10 days.)

With online registration, the exchange and verification of information happens immediately. Clemens’ bill would allow applicants to submit their voter registration applications online, and the state would compare the information with driver’s license records. Floridians could still choose to register to vote by paper. Broward Supervisor of Elections Brenda Snipes and Miami-Dade Supervisor of Elections Penelope Townsley both support online voter registration.

Many advocates of online voter registration say that it saves money, reduces the opportunity for errors from data entry or illegible handwriting and has been successfully used in both blue and red states.

At least 20 states currently offer online voter registration for new applicants and a few more are in the works. The Presidential Commission on Election Administration, co-chaired by lawyers for the campaigns of Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, recommended online registration in their 2014 report.

How much fraud has occurred nationwide in terms of paper registration? That is difficult to quantify because it depends on how someone defines “fraud.” Some fraudulent applications are rejected by elections officials (for example, Mickey Mouse), while others might get registered but then not vote.

Loyola Law school professor Justin Levitt, an expert on election administration, told PolitiFact Florida that it is difficult to make direct quantifiable comparisons between online and paper systems.

“In my rough sense of the comparative frequency and magnitude of the risks, I’d agree with the Florida state senator that online registration ends up more secure, accurate and cost-efficient, as he says,” Levitt said. “But I doubt you’ll find anyone who’s got a reliable study directly comparing the security of the two different methods, just because the precise rate of security breaches is so difficult to assess.”

Hans Von Spakovsky, an elections expert who works for the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that online registration for individuals for whom the state already has a record, such as driver’s license information, is not a problem. That’s the method recommended by the presidential commission.

“You will find that the states that have implemented online registration have almost all limited it to registration for individuals for whom there is already an existing state record that has been verified and where there is an existing signature,” he said.

Our ruling

Clemens said that online voter registration is a “a more secure” way of doing voter registration.

Experts who study online registration say there have been no reports of actual security breaches or fraud. If designed in a way to account for security, online registration reduces opportunities for fraud and errors.

However, experts warned that both online and paper systems can have potential pitfalls — the question is how do elections officials protect each system.

We rate this claim Mostly True.

PolitiFact Florida

The statement: Online voter registration is a “more secure” way of doing voter registration.

Jeff Clemens on Jan. 20, in a Senate Ethics and Elections committee hearing

The ruling: Experts who study online registration say there have been no reports of actual security breaches or fraud. If designed in a way to account for security, online registration reduces opportunities for fraud and errors. However, experts warned that both online and paper systems can have potential pitfalls — the question is how do elections officials protect each system.

We rate this claim: Mostly True.

Politifact Florida is a partnership between The Tampa Bay Times and the Miami Herald to check out truth in politics.

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