A Florida Senate bill to create an online voter registration system passed its first round of voting Tuesday 7-2.
SB 228, sponsored by Sen. Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth) and co-sponsored by Sen. Garrett Richter (R-Naples), was brought before the Committee on Ethics and Elections.
Will Boyett, chief deputy in the Alachua County Supervisor of Elections Office, said Florida’s voter registration system currently uses a form that’s approved at the state level. The form can be filled out in person at various agencies, including the Supervisor of Elections Office, public libraries or city halls.
The new bill is designed to bring that process to the web.
According to the bill, a “secure Internet website” would be established to allow people, including those registering to vote for the first time, to submit an application or update existing records. Voters can also submit information required to verify their voter eligibility.
“The big change would be this bill would allow voters to submit the form without what we refer to as an ink signature,” Boyett said. “They’d be able to use a digital signature that was already in the possession of another government agency.”
Gainesville support for online voter registration has been growing over the past few months by locals.
The Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida hosted the second annual Robert A. Bryant Public Policy Summit in February, where the theme was online voter registration.
Among the panelists was Kamal Latham, vice president for public policy with the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce.
“At the time, the chamber was considering whether or not to endorse online voter registration,” Latham said. “Since the conference, we have endorsed support for establishing a (system) with appropriate security measures.”
Florida is looking at measures already in use by states that have online voter registration. One current form of security in 19 of the 20 states that use online registration involves signature verification.
According to the bill, voters who want to submit their registrations would be verified using records from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, where their signature would be on file and then transferred to the elections office.
Boyett said when a signature is filed with a different agency, it is a more secure way to verify it.
“That provides just as much security and prevention of fraud as the print signature,” he said.
If a signature cannot be found in state records applicants still have options, according to the bill. The information applicants provide online will be put into a printable registration form, which will then need to be signed and delivered to the Supervisor of Election’s Office.
One of the last provisions in the bill requires the Supervisor of Elections to immediately tell voters their applications were received. Notifications will include instructions on how to check the status of applications as they progress.
“We like to think online voter registration is fantastic,” said Brandon Naylor, director of communications at Democracy Works. “It helps to ensure those voters provide accurate information efficiently.”
Democracy Works is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization committed to making democracy work better. The organization launched about five years ago with their first product, Turbo Vote.
Turbo Vote helps remind people about upcoming elections, allows people to change their addresses and register for absentee ballots, among other things. The service has partnered with about 50 colleges across the country, including the University of Florida.
“Speaking broadly, I would say online voter registration has four main benefits,” Naylor said. “That’s bringing to voter registration a sense of convenience, bringing accuracy and accountability, and cost savings.”
Naylor said he knows many voters live online. He said the number of voters with mobile devices who check webpages frequently has skyrocketed in the past few years. Bringing registration online brings the process to where the voter spends the most time.
With accuracy, Naylor said online registration gives election offices the ability to verify information using online databases. Officials can also tell who filled out forms and when, adding to accountability.
The switch to online registration has promoted cost savings in states like Arizona. The National Conference of State Legislatures references the Pew Charitable Trust study, which showed a change from an 83-cent cost per paper registration to 3 cents for online registration.
SB 228 is a step in the right direction, Naylor said, but the bill still has a few more votes to go through.
“The senate president refers certain pieces of legislation to different committees,” said Katie Betta, the deputy chief of staff on communications in the Florida Senate President’s Office.
Betta said the bill will first go to the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development. It will then head to the full Appropriations Committee before going before the senate for a final vote.
The bill will go into effect July 1 if passed, but services will not begin until Jan. 1, 2016, at which point, all of the processes are expected to be in place for a full and working system.
The next vote has not yet been scheduled.