Commentary

03/28/2013  by Alexandra Bjerg

Online Voter Registration proves to be major success


Low propensity voters were more engaged due to Online Voter Registration. (Photo Credit: Cle0patra)

The verdict is in: implementation of Online Voter Registration (OVR) in California was a success. Online registration not only dramatically boosted voter rolls, but also effectively engaged low propensity voters. Contrary to analyst predictions, online registrants were both diverse and more likely to turnout to vote.

Despite launching just five weeks before the registration deadline for the 2012 presidential election, more than half of all new registrants during that time period opted to go paperless by registering to vote online.

Advocates of historically underrepresented constituencies expressed concerns that OVR had the potential to exacerbate existing inequalities, particularly among lower income Californians and minorities. However, a new study released this week by researchers at UC Berkeley found that OVR succeeded in making voter registration more accessible to a broad range of Californians, not just younger and wealthier voters.

There are no significant differences between the ethnic composition of online registrants and paper registrants, according to the study by UC Berkeley’s Lisa Garcia Bedolla, Associate Professor of Education and Political Science, and Véronica N. Velez, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Center for Latino Policy Research.

Of the more than 800,000 Californians that took advantage of the new registration system, 22 percent were Hispanic, 11 percent Asian, and 59 percent white, reflecting the ethnic makeup of the state’s overall registered electorate.

In an effort to determine whether or not socio-economic status impacted accessibility and use of the OVR system, researchers analyzed the distribution of incomes among online registrants in Alameda and San Diego counties.

Surprisingly, based on their analysis, online registration did not skew towards the wealthy. In fact, researchers found that more online registrants hailed from low- and middle-income neighborhoods than expected. Less affluent residents made up the vast majority of Hispanic and white voters that registered online in both counties.

“Given voters in California are, on average, significantly more affluent than the general population, this study suggests that online voter registration opened up the registration process to a wider range of voters in terms of their socioeconomic status,” García Bedolla and Velez reported.

In Alameda County, 65 percent of Hispanic, 52 percent of whites, and 44 percent of Asian American online registrants lived in areas with an average median annual income of less than $75,000. Similarly, 71 percent of Hispanic, 57 percent of white and 50 percent of Asian American online registrants in San Diego County live in low- and middle-income neighborhoods.

The results indicate that “when we make the process easier, like letting you register after you Google it on your phone, folks participate,” said García Bedolla.

In addition to removing obstacles to access and expanding the registered electorate, OVR boosted turnout, contradicting the assumption that online registrants were too lazy to participate.

Voters who registered online had a higher turnout rate than those who registered to vote via snail mail during the same period, 78 percent compared to 70 percent, according to a report released this week by the California Civic Engagement Project of the UC Davis Center for Regional Change. Among younger voters, those 18 -24 years old, the gap was even greater.  Turnout for online registrants was 25 percent higher than the rate for non-online registrants.

The initial analysis of OVR’s impact shows it not only registered voters, but also created voters. However, it’s still too early to tell what the long-term implications are for California’s electorate and turnout rate.

But one thing is clear, the implementation of online voter registration proved that increasing access and removing barriers to the ballot box increases participation. If you make the process easier, Californians will engage. 

Categories: Democracy, Elections

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