Election Day registration

Letting voters register on Election Day helps protect Wisconsin against cyber attacks and other risks to a fair and accurate election system. 

The national attention on election security shows that sometimes the solution to a complex problem is not high-tech or even new.

A “playbook” recently released by a bipartisan team of experts at Harvard recommends securing U.S. elections using sophisticated solutions such as beefing up login credentials, but also analog solutions such as maintaining a paper trail for every ballot. This smart advice is increasingly being followed by election officials around the country. States including Wisconsin also are using new federal funds to enhance security in the lead up to the 2018 general election.

But it turns out an old practice — Election Day voter registration — also could save the day, even if voter registration databases are compromised.

Election Day registration is a kind of “one-stop shopping” that allows a person to both register and vote in one place. In most cases, same-day registration is offered at the polling place where a person normally votes. About 15 states plus the District of Columbia already have some form of Election Day registration. Though gaining in popularity in the past few years, it is not a new idea, having been adopted in Wisconsin and two other states as far back as the 1970s.

Proponents of Election Day registration have focused on the range of benefits it offers to both voters and election officials. For example, it is especially helpful for people who have recently moved and need to update their addresses. But it would be a lifesaver for one specific calamity: if voter registration systems were to go offline just before or on Election Day.

We continue to learn about vulnerabilities in the U.S. election infrastructure. An intelligence report issued two months after the 2016 presidential election concluded that the Russian government tried to get cyber access to state and local election authorities. Though the vote-counting infrastructure was not at risk, the report made clear that many state voter registration records were indeed susceptible to hacking.

In September, the Department of Homeland Security reported that hackers sought access to voter registration systems in more than 20 states. As part of this, Russian hackers apparently got access to browse millions of voter registration records in Illinois. “Phishing” emails were sent to county election officials in Florida to gain access to voter registration software. Some voters in Riverside, California, had their party registration information altered by hackers before the presidential primary there.

If voter registration databases were doctored, Election Day could be chaotic. Even a power outage – whether caused by bad actors or merely bad weather – would make it impossible to conduct elections in some communities. States with pre-printed poll books rather than electronic ones would be less likely to be affected, but almost any system would be in trouble if hackers get access before the election.

How would poll workers know who is registered and who is not? We obviously need a fail-safe solution to these situations.

One fail-safe that already exists everywhere is the “provisional ballot.” The Help America Vote Act, which was enacted in response to the 2000 election meltdown in Florida, mandated that voters must be offered provisional ballot when their registration status is in doubt. A few days later, election officials decide which of these ballots should be counted. This might solve the problem in many states.

But what happens if the underling voter registration system is no longer the authoritative source for determining exactly which provisional ballots should be counted? This is where Election Day registration comes in.

The key is that same-day registration can be done on paper. In states such as Maine, Minnesota and Wisconsin, it has been used successfully for several decades using paper forms. This means that people can become registered and cast ballots even if the registration database is not reliable.

Just last week, more than 100,000 voters in Los Angeles County had their names mistakenly left off the voting rolls due to a printing error. Fortunately, California has a form of Election Day registration that allowed those unfortunate voters to re-register and cast ballots with confidence.

Voters using Election Day registration need to provide the same evidence of their residence as they would for registration at any other time. For example, a potential voter in Wisconsin may show up to the polls with a bank statement, driver’s license, recent tax bill or other common documents. (Voter ID requirements are narrower and a separate matter.)

It would be a headache to administer, but an election could still be held as scheduled in a state that allows registration on Election Day. All that is needed is a team of poll workers, stacks of paper forms, a bin of pens, and a lot of patience. The votes could be tallied as usual. Every registration transaction would leave a paper trail for potential auditing after the election.

Though the election officials should remain vigilant in defending against cyber threats, Election Day registration is an old-school safeguard that might just save an election.

Burden is a political science professor and director of the Elections Research Center at UW-Madison: elections.wisc.edu and faculty.polisci.wisc.edu/bcburden.

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