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The Lesson from Arizona's Online Voter Registration Outage: Lightning Often Strikes Twice

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[Image courtesy of Frank1030's Flickr stream under Creative Commons]

Monday, August 1 was the last day for Arizonans to register to vote for local primary elections in Phoenix, Tucson, and other cities statewide. It was also one day after a series of strong storms swept the state - including one which took down a state mainframe that houses EZVoter, the online voter registration portal that was the first-of-its-kind in the United States when it was adopted several years go.

Of course, the storm didn't take down the registration deadline; consequently, as reported in The Arizona Republic, voters who wanted to register or change their registration needed to find a paper form and deliver it to a county election official, either in person or by mail. [The site did come back online early Monday evening, according to The Tucson Sentinel, giving voters a few hours before the midnight deadline to add or update their information on the voter rolls.]

Online voter registration is growing in popularity across the nation as states and localities seek to bring the election system into the 21st Century. Online registration is seen as a benefit to voters, who can shorten the distance between themselves and the rolls, bypassing the need to fill out a handwritten paper form and wait for the data to be entered into the state database. It is also a boon to cash-strapped states looking for efficiencies - indeed, a recent report by the Pew Center on the States found that the online systems in Arizona and Washington saved as much as $2.00 per voter registration over traditional paper systems.

As Monday's news from Arizona shows, however, online voter registration is not without vulnerabilities. Online registration may mitigate the potential impact of mail delays and bad handwriting associated with paper-based registration, but the heavy reliance of such systems on well-functioning computer systems - what IT professionals call "uptime" - creates new risks of failure that can affect eligible citizens' right to vote. These risks can be significant; as the Republic reported, as many as 70 percent of the state's registrations are processed through EZVoter. One can only imagine the chaos - and political furor - that would ensue if a similar outage were to occur at the registration deadline for a Presidential general election.

As the shift to online registration continues nationwide, states and localities need to take a hard look at what it takes to ensure the continual uptime of these systems - but especially at the most critical times (i.e. registration deadlines) when system failure could literally cost eligible citizens the right to vote. This means hardening registration against hackers, hacktivists and other information security threats - but it also means establishing backup systems and procedures to keep these systems online in the event of the inevitable bout of bad weather.

Lightning may not strike the same place twice, but it does strike more than once. When it does, states and localities with online registration systems need to ensure that when the lights go out, voters' ability to register to vote doesn't go dark as well.

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