One thing this election cycle has taught us is that although recent court battles and political arguments over voter identification laws, gerrymandering, and the Voting Rights Act tend to grab the headlines, election officials across the political spectrum are improving how well elections actually work by implementing some of the technological improvements the private sector has been using for years. Consumers — in this case, voters — want the convenience, accessibility and mobility offered by new technologies. This has led to a quiet revolution in red and blue states alike that has made the voting process more accurate, cost-effective and efficient. After all, we’re accustomed to using our smart phones and laptops to pay bills, book flights and scan the news. Why not use them to register to vote or find out where to cast a ballot?
A great example of this approach is online voter registration. Four years ago, citizens in only eight states, representing 12 percent of eligible voters nationwide, could register online. But as of the end of September 2014 — with registration deadlines rapidly approaching — almost 110 million of the approximately 225 million eligible U.S. voters were living in the 20 states that now offer online registration. This innovation was driven not by political partisans but by professional election administrators; pioneered by Republican election officials in Arizona and then Washington, online voter registration is now offered by states as red as Kansas and Georgia, and as blue as California and Maryland.
But even with the efficiency of online registration, Americans’ mobility makes it difficult to ensure that voting rolls are accurate, because a large percentage of people don’t realize that their registration requires updating after a move. So multiple states have joined a partnership known as ERIC — the Electronic Registration Information Center — which uses official information, including voter registration rolls, motor vehicle records, postal addresses and Social Security death records, to identify registrations that are outdated or invalid because the individuals moved, changed names or died. Eleven states plus the District of Columbia are members of ERIC, and many more are considering joining, particularly since the bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration urged states to do so earlier this year.
State election administrators’ interest in ERIC isn’t surprising, because it’s the best tool they have to keep voter rolls as accurate and complete as possible. But voters benefit, too, because they’re more likely to receive up-to-date information about elections. Furthermore, researchers have confirmed that when states participate in ERIC, they see fewer problems at the polls on Election Day.
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Other aspects of voting are also benefiting from technology-driven change. Before the 2008 election, the public had no standardized, reliable, nationwide source to find answers to basic voting questions, such as where to vote and who is on the ballot. That changed with the establishment of the Voting Information Project, a partnership of election officials, Google, and The Pew Charitable Trusts. Voters in all 50 states and the District of Columbia can now easily find answers to these queries in the places where they’re most likely to look: on news sites or through search engines such as Google or Bing, even from their mobile devices. During the 2012 election, voters made more than 25 million such searches and found trustworthy information.
The challenge for election officials nationwide is to deliver reliable, accurate, and rapid services to their customers — voters — using the Internet-based tools that we employ every day. The clear winners, in this election and in the future, will be a politically and geographically diverse group of states that have successfully begun to meet that challenge, making it easier for citizens to participate in our democracy than ever before.
David Becker is the director of The Pew Charitable Trusts’ election initiatives.
©2014 David Becker