Online Voter Registration APIs – A New Trend?

September 2016 2 min read by David Becker

As of today, 32 states and the District of Columbia have online voter registration, and that number is growing.  The benefits are well known and well documented: online voter registration is more convenient, more efficient, and more secure than paper, and while it requires an initial modest investment, it saves states money in printing costs and in data entry, almost immediately recouping the costs.  The challenge for many states, however, is that field groups have little or no incentive to use online voter registration systems – paper forms allow these groups to collect contact information on registrants to use for voter outreach and allow them to take credit for the new registrants they bring into the process.  So how do we balance everyone’s needs?

Colorado, Virginia, and Washington State create custom links for groups to use to track their own registration activity, and Nevada and Washington State allow field-based registration groups to pass information via URL parameters through to the state website, allowing less redundancy in the information required of the registrant; all of these states permit groups to capture some information from registrants for outreach purposes before delivering the registrant to the state.  California offers an application programming interface (API) that lets trusted parties collect and pass certain data fields – name, address, phone number, and email address – through the API to the Secretary of State’s voter registration site.  None of these solutions, however, completely mirror the paper form, and both solutions require consistent access to the internet, a potential hurdle in the field.  From the user’s perspective, none of these solutions allow for a unified voter registration transaction; in every scenario, the user starts in one place and finishes in another.

Pennsylvania took steps to address this.  Earlier this year, the Department of State released an API to permit trusted organizations to build web applications that allow registrants complete the entire voter registration transaction in one easy process.  Interested organizations must pass a thorough testing process to ensure that registrations sent through their application are received properly by the system; Rock the Vote and Pennsylvania Voice released the first application built off of Pennsylvania’s API earlier this month.  The API itself took just a few months to build and was done using developer time already allocated to work on the voter registration system.  Particularly unique, the Pennsylvania API does not require the internet; applications built off of the API can store data in a non-human readable format on a tablet or smartphone and automatically batch upload those data when the device is connected to the internet.  And, since Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states that doesn’t require users of their online voter registration system to have a driver’s license, the API allows a potential registrant to sign with a stylus via smartphone or tablet.

The result is a seamless user interface for registrants, a robust tool for field groups conducting outreach, and a way for the Department of State to drive even more traffic away from costly paper to online voter registration.  Through the API and tools built off the API, field groups and campaigns can reduce the amount of paper forms they collect and deliver to county voter registration offices and, more importantly, ensure that all applications they receive are processed – no more forgotten or lost applications.  Election officials benefit by driving more and more voter registration activity online, which in turn saves money and increases efficiencies.  As more states implement online voter registration systems, and as those states with existing systems begin considering upgrades, building an API is an option to keep on the table.

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