State launches online voter registration

For the first time, Maryland residents can register to vote online — a move officials say will make it easier to get on the rolls and avoid mistakes.

The State Board of Elections quietly launched the new system last month, and Gov. Martin O'Malley's office began promoting it this week. A few hundred people have already given the online system a try, elections officials said.

The General Assembly passed the law allowing online registration last year, and Maryland is now the 10th state to offer it. Arizona paved the way in 2002.

"It makes it easier and more accessible to register to vote," said Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for the governor. "More and more people are doing their business and their daily activities online — it's very easy, and it's very efficient."

To register online, potential voters need a driver's license or official state ID card. They enter their information at the State Board of Elections website. A copy of the applicant's signature is made part of the registration by pulling it from the Motor Vehicle Administration's driver's license database.

The new system launches at a time when some states are making their voting laws stricter, requiring voters to bring photo IDs to polling places. Supporters of the ID laws say they prevent voter fraud; their opponents say such laws disenfranchise the elderly and minorities, who are less likely to have IDs. Republican-backed plans to introduce voter ID requirements in Maryland have been unsuccessful.

Ross Goldstein, deputy administrator of the State Board of Elections, said the online system is just as secure as existing paper or in-person ways of registering. The board has long used information from the MVA to verify voters' identities, and with a few small changes, that system was replicated online.

"It has a level of security built into it, and we have a high level of confidence," Goldstein said.

The deadline to register for this year's election is Oct. 16. Voters who are already registered can use the system to check that their information is correct.

In the past, human error has caused problems with registration. An illegible form can lead to people being told on Election Day they are not registered. A review last year by The Baltimore Sun found that a quarter of people who thought they had registered to vote at the MVA were left off the rolls.

After the problems were uncovered, the MVA promised to revamp its system. In February, it started sending a voter's entire file to the Board of Elections electronically, rather than on paper.

John Willis, director of the government and public policy program at the University of Baltimore and an elections expert, called the new system an "administrative step in the right direction."

"In those states that have gone to this step, it has improved accuracy as well as reduced some of the frustrations and mistakes that voters have experienced," he said.

Willis said registering at the MVA is the most common method, but he expects a few thousand people each month to register online.

"There's going to be an ease to the voter because this is another alternative," Willis added. "A very busy person, whether it's a businessman who is traveling all the time or a college student sitting in a dorm, if they have a driver's license, they'll be able to complete the process."

Despite enthusiasm from supporters of the system, Donald F. Norris, chairman of the public policy department at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said online registration will not boost turnout in November.

In general, Norris said, voter enthusiasm about candidates is what encourages them to show up at the polls.

"There have been all kinds of attempts to tweak the voting system to increase voter registration," he said. "Nothing seems to work."