Vermont rolls out online voter registration, looks to future

MONTPELIER – Secretary of State Jim Condos unveiled Vermont’s new online voter registration system Thursday, a network built over two years that officials hope will boost voter turnout in future elections.

“The biggest obstacle to registering people to vote is convenience,” said Gov. Peter Shumlin, speaking at City Hall. “And what this allows is for folks to go online, to register and to be able to participate in the most important democracy in the world.”

Out of the 665,000 people living in Vermont, roughly 440,000 are registered to vote, Condos said. The online system will boost this number in the coming months, he hopes, as Vermonters can now register online or in person up until the Wednesday before the 2016 election, Condos said.

The new software also allows voters to request and track absentee ballots, retrieve directions to polling places and view real-time election results, officials said.

The online registration software is the last part of a larger $2.7 million technology project that included the development of online repositories for campaign finance and lobbyist data that is now available on the Secretary of State’s website.

A majority of the program cost – about $2 million – came from the federal government, while the state provided $700,000, Condos said.

The online system allows Vermonters to register to vote by filling out a six-part questionnaire, similar to the paper documents available at town clerks’ offices all over the state.

“One of the biggest complaints we have from overseas and military voters is that they don’t know if their ballot made it back in time,” Condos said. “Now we are going to be able to see.”

Condos said 244 of the 246 the state’s town clerks have been briefed and trained on the software, and that they understand their role in confirming and updating voter rolls using the system.

John Odum, Montpelier’s city clerk, praised the program and said in his talks to town clerks they have been “literally unanimous in their praise for this product.”

David Becker, director of election initiatives at the Pew Charitable Trust, told reporters that Vermont is now one of 26 states with online voter registration, and that in 2008, only two states had online systems in place.

Becker said Pew has observed that states with online registration often have higher turnout in elections, but cautioned that many factors influence the number of people that turn out on Election Day.

He said the factors include how competitive the race is, the strength of the parties, the amount of money invested in advertising, even the weather.

Condos pointed to other initiatives to encourage voting, including the upcoming allowance of same-day voter registration, which begins in January 2017.

He also pointed to California and Oregon, two states that have opt-out automatic voter registration, and said he was going to recommend similar rules in the next legislative session.

Shumlin voiced support for an automatic voter registration system in Vermont, saying, “I think anything we can do to increase voter participation is a great thing to do.”

The system went live a week ago, and Condos said some Vermonters had already used the new software.

“As of yesterday morning we already 285 online voter registrations,” Condos said. “So people have found it already.”

Jasper Craven

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