Rhode Island moves to electronic voter registration

On Wednesday, Rhode Island unveiled a new electronic voter registration system, which integrates the state’s “Motor Voter” procedures into their new statewide voter registration system.

At this point, precise details of the new electronic voter registration system are a bit sparse, but according to a press release from the Rhode Island Secretary of State’s office, issued yesterday, the new system has the following functionality:

Motor Voter e-Registration is available to Rhode Islanders using services at any of the states eight DMV locations and also to AAA members at club locations. When a citizen is getting a license or ID for the first time, renewing a license, or changing their name or address DMV employees must ask citizens if they would like to register to vote as required by state law. The process takes minutes and is similar to a touch-pad used at supermarkets, banks or convenience stores. Citizens must still answer questions about their eligibility and swear an affirmation, just as they would have under the old system.

…Motor Voter e-Registration simplifies the voter registration process at the DMV by allowing Rhode Islanders to confirm information on the touchpad and sign the voter registration electronically. In the past, citizens needed to fill out a paper form, which was then delivered to the Rhode Island Board of Elections and forwarded to local boards of canvassers where it was manually entered into the voter registration system resulting in a longer registration processing period.

Apparently what then happens is that the voter registration application information is sent to a local election board through the state’s “Central Voter Registration System” (CVRS), where it is then either approved or rejected.

As far as I am aware this is the first statewide voter registatration system that allows potential voters to interact with a computerized statewide voter registration database, using hardware and connections in the offices of a state agency (and apparently a private third-party organization, AAA). This new approach to implementing the provisions of “Motor Voter” could resolve some of the potential problems with voter registration applications that arise from state agencies and third parties, by speeding up the process, providing voters real-time response, and by helping to reduce common errors that can prevent such registration applications from being accepted or which can introduce errors into voter registration records.

Exactly how the new connections between the DMV and AAA offices have been implemented is not clear from the information that I’ve been able to find. According to testimony before the EAC during hearings in Boston earlier this year, Rhode Island Secretary of State Matthew A. Brown described the CVRS in detail, noting that it runs on a “private, high-speed state government network, RINET-MUNI”, described as “a secure and efficient system.” Some additional details of how the CVRS operates using the RINET-MUNI system are given in this FAQ. But from these descriptions, it does sound as if Rhode Island has taken a major step towards implementation of electronic voter registration.

Unfortunately, it might be quite difficult to eventually evaluate the effectiveness of this electronic voter registration system. As I was looking into Rhode Island’s voter registration process, I checked the recent EAC publication “The Impact of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 …” for data on Rhode Island voter registration procedures (especially the data on how many registrations they process using “Motor Voter” procedures). Unfortunately, Rhode Island seems to have reported little to no data for the purposes of this report to the EAC, meaning that unless someone can get data from Rhode Island on NVRA implementation in 2004 through other means, there may not be any reliable baseline information from which to analyze how this new electronic registration system influenced some dimensions of the voter registration process in Rhode Island. This is just another example of how hard it can sometimes be to analyze election administration practices, as we just lack basic data altogether too often.