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Online Voter Registration Likely Years Away After Florida Senate Bill Withdrawn

crownjewel82 via Flickr

At the same time Florida election supervisors are looking at how to bring online voter registration to the state, the chance of legislative action on the issue went from tiny to nonexistent this week. The senator pushing online registration withdrew his bill amidst doubts it could pass the full Legislature.  

Ask the question “Should Florida voters be able to register online?” and you’ll get different answers from different people. Sen. Jeff Clemens (D-Lake Worth) says yes.

“With 19 other states already doing this, we’re already behind the ball,” he told the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Monday.

But incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner (R-Orlando) says not yet.

“It may be a bill that’s just not ready for prime time,” he said of Clemens’s bill.

But Hendry County Elections Supervisor Brenda Hoots says online registration is clearly on the horizon.

“I think it’s most likely a way of the future,” she says.

Hoots says a large percentage of her county’s roughly 16,000 voters register in person at DMV offices.

“We always have to keep in mind everybody doesn’t have the Internet,” she says. “We’re a very rural county.”

Nonetheless, she says she’d support giving people the option to log on to a website and register. Now, the closest option is signing a registration form printed from a home computer. 

“And hope my printer does it correctly—you know how sometimes frustrating printers can get—and then having to put it in an envelope and put a stamp on it and mail it. I mean, it doesn’t sound like it’s a big task, but sometimes it can be the difference between someone completing the application and sending it in or not sending it,” Hoots says.

Clemens’s bill would have given the state until July of 2015 to create the online registration system.

“And if we wait until we come around next year to develop that system, then it’s going to be a whole ‘nother year probably before we can start,” he says.

But with no companion measure in the House, Sen. John Thrasher (R-St. Augustine) told the committee Monday the idea will have to wait.

Thrasher said, “This bill is not going to go very far this session. I think we all know that.”

Thrasher and Gardiner said before voting on the bill, they’d like to hear forthcoming recommendations from the Florida State Association of Supervisors of Elections. Association legislative chair David Stafford, who’s also Escambia County elections supervisor, says it’s a safe bet supervisors will endorse online registration, but exactly how they’ll recommend it should work remains to be seen.

Stafford says the association objected to a provision added to Clemens’s bill that would have required voters who registered online to cast their first vote in person rather than use a mail-in ballot. It was put in as a compromise after some on the committee, including Chairman Jack Latvala (R-Clearwater) raised concerns about voter fraud.

Stafford says, “A system can be devised that can address those concerns without having to separate out this class of voters, if you will, which would be a first-time online registrant.”

Arizona Secretary of State spokesman Matt Roberts says his state has been using such a system for almost 12 years. As Clemens’s bill had prescribed for Florida, the Arizona system matches voters’ information with what’s on file with the Department of Motor Vehicles. If the information is a match, it automatically goes on file with local election supervisors. Roberts says that vastly cuts their processing costs, especially in places like Phoenix's Maricopa County, which processes more than 325,000 online registrations. 

“They calculated it costs an average of 3 cents to process an online application when compared to the average of 83 cents to process a paper application,” he says.

Roberts says Arizona’s voter rolls are also more accurate because of online registration. For one thing, it cuts down on elections office workers having to decipher illegible handwriting. And because it draws from DMV records, it can help ensure voters are registering where they live.

Florida’s election supervisors are talking to officials from several online-registration states for their study. They’re expected to release their recommendations late this year.