SPRINGFIELD — You can do your banking on your smartphone or buy a refrigerator on the Internet, but you can’t register to vote in Illinois without putting pen to paper.
Gov. Pat Quinn wants to change all that by setting up a system that would allow residents to register to vote online.
“In our Illinois, we embrace the voices and the votes of all people. Our democracy is strongest when more voters raise their voices at the ballot box,” the governor said during his annual State of the State speech last week. “We must move our election process into the 21st century.”
Quinn aides say the move could boost turnout and, eventually, save taxpayer dollars by eliminating the need for personnel and paper to process applications.
And, it could be especially helpful in driving younger, tech-savvy voters to the polls, since they are among the lowest percentage of Illinoisans when it comes to being registered to vote.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks laws and legislation, 12 other states have already implemented online registration systems and a handful more are either considering the idea or are poised to unveil their systems.
Among Illinois’ neighbors, Indiana is the lone state offering the service. Missouri lawmakers are considering a proposal. Iowa has not raised the issue.
How it works in other states
In Oregon, which approved online registration in 2009, officials are pleased with the results.
“It’s been very successful for us,” said Tony Green, spokesman for the Oregon Secretary of State’s election division. “We’re trying to make it convenient for people, and online is increasingly the way people do business, particularly younger people.”
Meg Casper, spokeswoman for the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office, said it was particularly handy on the final day of registration before the presidential election.
“It allowed people to register right up until midnight,” Casper said, noting it eliminates the need for voters to leave work to stand in line at an election office. “Online registration certainly makes it more convenient.”
In Arizona, registration went online more than a decade ago and resulted in a 9.5 percent jump in voter registration, according to national conference.
A 2010 study by University of Washington and University of California researchers found that people who registered to vote online turned out to vote at higher rates in 2008 than those who registered in traditional methods.
Some lawmakers worry about fraud
In response to Quinn’s proposal, some Illinois Democrats embraced the idea.
“I would support it. I think anytime you make a change like that it has to be done in a thoughtful way. But I think we should begin to take steps toward that effort,” Sen. Andy Manar, D-Bunker Hill, said. “Obviously, giving people better access to the voting booth is a good thing.“
Republican lawmakers, however, are blanching at the prospect.
“I think it’s a terrible idea,” said Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet. “The word ‘fraud’ comes to mind. You get people able to register online from anywhere and then pretend they are actually living in that precinct.“
Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, a potential candidate for governor in 2014, said Illinois’ reputation for corruption in government makes him wary of online registration.
He said Democrats have rejected repeated GOP efforts to require voters to show picture identification at the polling place.
“I think everyone in Illinois is concerned about voter fraud,” Brady said. “I think everyone is suspicious of the Chicago mentality on voting. This just smacks of more fraud.”
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In Oregon, that’s not been the experience, Green said.
“Despite the concerns that some people have expressed, making it easier to vote and making it easier to register to vote do not increase the chances of fraud,” Green said. “Typically, when people are talking about voter fraud, they are coming up with an excuse to avoid more aggressively registering people to vote.”
It’s not the first time the issue has been broached in Illinois.
In 2006, in response to a request from the General Assembly, the Illinois State Board of Elections convened a panel to study whether an online system could be implemented. The 27-page report, however, turned a thumbs-down on the idea.
“Illinois provides many accessible voter registration opportunities to residents without the security risks and fiscal challenges that Internet voter registration would pose,” the report noted.
But that was 2006, a lifetime ago in terms of advances in technology. Back then, Apple was still in the final stages of developing the iPhone.
Along with GOP concerns about fraud, the question of money also is an issue for a state that has billions of dollars in unpaid bills. While start-up costs in some states have been under $1 million, studies show that money could be recouped within a few years because of the need for less manpower for processing registrations.
In Maricopa County, Ariz., for example, officials found registering on paper costs at least 83 cents, compared with about 3 cents for online, according to researchers.
Louisiana also has seen savings.
“It is certainly more streamlined,” Casper said.