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Online Registration and the "Cost of Convenience"

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[Image courtesy of Newslink's Opentext]

Frequent readers of this blog know that I am an unabashed cheerleader for the use of new technology to help voters get the information and answers they need - as well as to assist election offices with the process of building and maintaining voter rolls that can keep pace with voters as they move.

Indeed, it seems only natural - even obvious - that election officials would use the same technology that voters rely on for so many other aspects of their lives. Yet a new article in Political Research Quarterly by political scientists Elizabeth A. Bennion (Indiana-South Bend) and David W. Nickerson (Notre Dame) suggests that the growing use of technology is accompanied by a "cost of convenience" that could, in fact, decrease participation in the absence of other outreach.

In their study, Bennion and Nickerson examined the effect of using email to direct college students on selected campuses either to an online state registration form or an online registration form hosted by Rock the Vote. By matching student information to a national voter file produced by Catalist, the researchers were able to determine that students who received the emails directing them to online forms were very slightly (0.3%) less likely to be registered as a result when compared to students in a control group who had simply been reminded to register.

This result, Bennion and Nickerson conclude, means that the move toward online registration must be cognizant of the fact that such programs do not eliminate the "transaction costs" for voters but merely exchange them for new ones.

The authors make two more points worth noting here. First, they observe that the observed (albeit small) decrease in likelihood of registration associated with online forms can be overcome with some kind of followup - text, email, etc. Second, and more importantly, they note that their study examined programs whereby would-be registrants download and complete forms and then return them by hand or by mail. A truly online registration system - which we are seeing in more states this cycle - would actually increase registration rates by reducing voter transaction costs even further.

Bennion and Nickerson's article is a valuable cautionary tale to e-thusiasts like me about the limits of technology; yet, it is also a powerful reminder that even the most advanced technology must be well-designed to accomplish its goals - and accompanied by the necessary human touch to help the individual(s) involved see it through to the end.

1 Comment

  • As a state that offers true online voter registration, not just download-and-send-in registration, we find that this method is popular with a number of our citizens, particularly our younger voters who are tech-savvy and do most of their important transactions online. It certainly is no panacea, but is a convenience -- just a few clicks, some baseline info, and your registration is submitted. We, of course, have various followups and prompts, including birthday-registration mailings to our arising 18 year olds. We've even tried mailing pre-filled registration forms to 18 year olds, and a significant number didn't sign and return them! Still, we soldier on, and our numbers and our turnout, all voting by mail, are strong. Like many states, we work hard to register and to turn out voters, and were named the tops by Rock the Vote. We will continue to look for cool new ways to engage people, including a Facebook partnership, and the Catalist national voter file and student match idea sounds great, as does email contact.

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