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Pa. must pass online voter registration now

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By Christopher A. Lewis
Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

An agency of the commonwealth has developed a system that will save money, reduce error and increase the accuracy of Pennsylvania's voter registration rolls. Impossible, you say?

That's exactly what the Department of State has done by developing a web-based, online voter registration program that would allow citizens to register for the first time and registered voters to change their addresses or party affiliations.

The catch: The department says it cannot deploy the new system until the General Assembly authorizes the program by passing legislation.

Way back in April, the Pennsylvania Senate unanimously passed such a bill, SB 37, paving the way for implementation. Yet, the bill now languishes in the House State Government Committee. The committee has not scheduled the bill for a vote, despite apparently strong bipartisan support.

Pennsylvania should join the growing trend among states and offer online voter registration, a process with clear advantages for both voters and election administration.

Voters benefit because it's easier and more convenient to submit a registration form online, and it allows for faster processing of the application.

County election officials benefit because the electronic registration does not require data entry, leading to fewer errors and, consequently, more accurate voter registration rolls.

Taxpayers also benefit because it costs much less to process electronic registrations and frees time for other election administration tasks.

In the 2012 election cycle, the Department of State reported that Pennsylvania received more than 900,000 new voter registrations. Online voter registration would streamline the processing of so many registrations.

Twelve states offered online voter registration during the 2012 election cycle, one more has implemented it since then, and six other states have passed legislation allowing online voter registration to move forward. Assuming that, like its sister states, Pennsylvania uses proper design to address security concerns, there is no downside to acting now.

Many commonwealth agencies already offer online services, including the departments of Revenue, Transportation and Unemployment Compensation. Voter registration should be a part of the state's online portal of services.

Voters of all party affiliations in states with online voter registration have embraced the system.

Young voters, in particular, have increased their registration rates through online voter registration. For example, registration rates among 18- to 24-year-olds jumped 25 percent in Arizona after online voter registration became available in that state.

Pennsylvania's measure already enjoys bipartisan support given the unanimous Senate vote. The Pennsylvania General Assembly should be making it easier for voters to participate in elections and voting.

As the General Assembly gets back to business this month, it should pass SB 37 without delay.

Christopher A. Lewis is a former secretary of the commonwealth.

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