May 3, 2013

The most recently available voter registration statistics from the D.C. Board of Elections are interesting, to say the least. As of March 31, Washington, a city with a population of 632,323, had 505,698 registered voters.

Is this possible? Is it possible for almost 80 percent of a large city’s population — not voting-age population, but entire population, including noncitizens — to be registered to vote?

Sure, it’s possible — anything is possible — but it’s certainly not probable.

While the Board of Elections has yet to conduct its biennial review of the voter rolls, clearly those rolls are inflated. Anyone with five minutes to look at the rolls in the District can see that they are riddled with duplicate registrations, typos, old addresses and maiden names.

One way to get cleaner rolls would be to allow online voter registration. Currently, 17 states have approved legislation permitting residents to enroll online; the practice is in place in 12 of those states, with the remaining five in the process of setting it up. In another 10 states, legislation is being debated.

From red states to blue states to swing states, lawmakers are setting aside their political rhetoric and, with the support of state elections officials, debating and approving online voter registration. Even in Virginia, where debates have raged over contentious voter-access issues regarding early voting, voter ID, ex-felon voting rights, the General Assembly enacted online registration unanimously this year in the Senate and almost unanimously in the House of Delegates.

Yet in the District — a progressive jurisdiction where the Democratic Party dominates — movement has lagged.

There is no reason that the D.C. Board of Elections should not be offering online registration, other than a lack of vision and the funding necessary to bring that vision to fruition.

Online registration doesn’t mean the elimination of other registration methods, such as via paper form or a visit to the Department of Motor Vehicles. It simply gives residents another tool for getting registered — and getting involved. And while adopting online registration won’t by itself purge bloated rolls of duplicate or outdated listings, it will make it much easier for voters to update and correct their enrollment information. Over time, the result is cleaner rolls.

Another plus: A recent study by researchers at University of California, Berkeley, of the state’s new online registration system found that it was used disproportionally by people in low- and middle-income neighborhoods. Finally, online registration saves money, with states and counties reporting saving thousands (and in some cases millions) of dollars in staff time and other costs.

Last year, D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) introduced legislation to allow the Board of Elections to create an online voter registration system. But the bill was met with a lukewarm response and went nowhere. On Tuesday, Wells tried again, introducing a bill to allow D.C. residents to register to vote or update their voter registration online. Council members David Grosso (I-At Large) and Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) have signed on as co-sponsors.

Election administration legislation isn’t sexy. It’s not going to get the big headlines. But it is a fundamental part of our democracy. By failing to implement online voter registration, D.C. officials are failing taxpayers at the most fundamental of levels.

The writer, a former Ward 1C advisory neighborhood commissioner, is editor of the election reform Web site Electionline.