OVR+: Expanding and Improving Online Voter Registration
Online voter registration (OVR) has been a major step forward in election administration over the past two decades. Since Arizona became the first state to adopt OVR in 2002, 42 states and the District of Columbia have adopted OVR and made their voter registration process significantly more secure, cost-effective, and efficient.
Allowing voters to register to vote or update their registration information online replaces millions of labor-intensive paper forms with secure, electronic transmissions. Instead of having to decipher and re-type handwritten forms, election officials can review and upload registration information electronically to the statewide voter registration database.
However, most states’ OVR systems still leave a substantial gap. In 31 states, OVR systems are only open to people with a driver’s license or ID card issued by the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. In these states, anyone without a state DMV-issued ID must still register to vote or update their voter registration on a paper form. Paper forms can be inconvenient for voters and inefficient for clerks, costing tens of millions of dollars each year in labor.
The reason for this limitation is technical. A voter typically needs to have a signature on file with their registration, for things like verifying a mail ballot. In most states, people cannot upload a signature image to the OVR website, which generally only accepts typed information. Therefore, to use the OVR system, most states require a person to provide a DMV-issued ID number. This number allows the voter registration system to retrieve the signature image from the person’s driver’s license record and use that DMV signature for purposes of voter registration.
In recent years, several states have upgraded their OVR systems to allow people without a state DMV-issued ID to register to vote online, a change known as OVR+. These systems provide a solution to the signature issue. People can register to vote by providing exactly the same information they currently provide on a paper form, and uploading an image of their signature for purposes of voter registration.
OVR+ improves security, saves money, and makes registration more convenient by allowing more people to register and update registration information online instead of through an inconvenient and inefficient paper form. To assist other states considering an OVR upgrade, this report answers some of the frequently asked questions about OVR+.
Q: Why do most states limit their OVR systems to people with a DMV-issued ID?
A: Generally, a voter needs to have a signature on file for registration, for things like verifying a mail ballot or a signature on a petition. Currently, most states’ OVR systems allow voters to enter typed information, but do not allow upload of a signature image. To solve this issue, most OVR systems require applicants to provide a DMV-issued ID number. This number allows the registration system to retrieve the person’s signature image from the DMV database and use it for purposes of voter registration.
OVR+ solves this technological issue, by letting people without a DMV-issued ID number upload an image of their signature to the OVR website. In most states, this takes the form of an uploaded photograph – people sign a piece of paper, take a photo with their phones, and then upload the signature to the OVR website. Some states alternatively let voters sign their signature on their phone or tablet.
OVR+ lets people register online and provide a copy of their signature, even if they don’t have a license or ID from the state DMV. Currently, these people are forced to use a paper form, and the signature on the paper form is scanned into the voter database when their local election official processes the registration application.
Q: Who doesn’t have a DMV-issued ID?
A: According to estimates from the U.S. Department of Transportation, roughly 10% of adults don’t have a driver’s license.1 While some of this population has a non-driver ID from the DMV, this group generally consists of young people and old people who do not drive, as well people who have recently moved to the state and don’t yet have a state license or ID. It also includes military voters who are stationed out of state from where their license was issued. In most states, these people cannot use OVR, and are forced to print out, complete, and mail or physically return paper registration forms, hindering their access to registration and voting.
Q: How many paper forms are submitted each year?
A: According to data from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, roughly 13 million paper registration forms were submitted by mail or in-person in the 2020 election cycle.2
Q: What’s wrong with paper forms?
A: Paper forms are inefficient and inconvenient for voters and county clerks. Voters need to print them out, fill them out, and then either mail them or return them off in person. Election officials need to read people’s handwriting, scan signatures, and re-type these forms into the registration database, taking time and effort and introducing the potential for clerical error.
Research puts the labor cost of processing each paper form at $4.72, meaning that processing 13 million paper forms for the 2020 election cost local election officials over $61 million.3
Q: Under OVR+, can people still use paper forms if they want?
A: Yes. If people want to use paper forms, they still can. And the option to register by paper form is protected by federal law. But OVR+ provides a much more convenient option for people who currently have no other option except a paper form.
Q: What states have expanded to OVR+?
A: As shown in the following map, Eleven states and the District of Columbia have adopted OVR+. Washington, D.C., Colorado, Delaware, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Vermont have already implemented OVR+, and Maine, Oregon, and New York are in the process of implementing it.
Notably, the list of states with OVR+ ranges from conservative states like Kentucky and Missouri to very liberal states like Vermont. This is because expanding online voter registration is a common-sense reform that saves money, improves security, and increases access to voting.
Q: Are uploaded signatures high quality enough to be used for verifying mail ballots?
A: Yes. In general, to provide a signature for registration, people can upload a photograph of their signature to the OVR website. People just need to sign a piece of paper, take a photograph of the signature with their phones, and then upload the photograph. This is similar to how people sign checks with a mobile app. Since clerks just scan signatures from paper forms, this produces a similarly high-quality signature to a paper form.
Q: What information will people without DMV-issued IDs provide for online registration?
A: People without DMV-issued IDs will provide the exact same information they can currently provide on paper forms. Instead of providing their DMV-issued ID number, they will provide the last four digits of their social security number (SSN4).
Federal law allows people to register to vote by providing their SSN4. That means people can register with an SSN4 right now, under current law. They just do it on a paper form.
OVR+ does not change the information people need to provide for registration. It just lets people who have to file a paper registration form under current law submit an online form, avoiding the need for expensive, inefficient, and error-prone paper forms.
Q: What kind of verification does OVR+ do?
A: OVR+ uses the same verification procedures already in place. It does not change the content of the voter registration form or the procedures for processing the form. It just lets more people submit a more efficient and convenient electronic form instead of a paper form.
Under current procedures, when a person registers to vote with an DMV number or SSN4, the number is checked against a database. A DMV number is checked against the DMV database. An SSN4 is checked against the federal Social Security Administration database for a match of the person’s name and birthdate.
Q: How does OVR+ impact the security of registration?
A: OVR+ makes registration much more secure. Right now, states without OVR+ force millions of people to use paper registration forms each election cycle to register or update their registration. Paper forms are far less secure than online submissions.
While paper forms can be lost, stolen, or damaged, expanding online voter registration creates an encrypted electronic record of each registration attempt, including the IP address that submitted the form. These OVR data logs can highlight unusual activity and any potential mischief, and make it easy for election officials to follow up on questionable submissions. This type of investigation and follow-up is impossible with paper forms, which have no digital trail.
Likewise, paper forms can contain sloppy handwriting or be misread by election officials, which can cause incorrect entries in the registration database due to clerical errors. By contrast, electronic submissions do not have to be typed in by hand, avoiding errors that can result in incorrect entries. Correct entries ensure that people are registered at the right address and mail ballots are delivered to the right person.
1. See U.S. Dept of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Office of Highway Policy Information, Highway Statistics Series 2019, https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/statistics/2019/dl1c.cfm.
2. U.S. Elec. Assistance Comm’n, Election Administration and Voting Survey 2020 Comprehensive Report at 146, https://www.eac.gov/sites/default/files/document_library/files/2020_EAVS_Report_Final_508c.pdf.
3. See Doug Chapin & David Kuennen, The Cost (Savings) of Reform: An Analysis of Local Registration-Related Costs and Potential Savings Through Automatic Voter Registration, March 2017, https://wecanvote.us/registration-related-costs_030817.pdf.