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New Maryland Analysis Examines How Voters Use Online Registration

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[Image courtesy of mobilize]

As online voter registration continues to expand across the nation, we are starting to shift focus from the question of *if* online registration is a good idea to *how* it works in states that have adopted it. Last October, I blogged about a Pew election data dispatch that took a preliminary look at six states' experiences.

Yesterday, Michael McDonald of George Mason University's U.S. Elections Project had a lengthy HuffPost blog piece taking an even closer look using data from Maryland, which adopted online registration last year. Here's what he found:

A substantial number of people -- 124,819 -- used Maryland's online system from the date the system went live on July 1, 2012 through the most recent date where I have data, April 11, 2013. Among these, 39.8 percent used the online system to initiate a new registration and 60.2 percent updated an existing registration.

That data (displayed in tables here and here) reveals a series of interesting distinctions between parties, ages - even genders:

[R]egistrants tend to be less often registered as Republicans -- by 8.5 percentage points -- and more likely to register as unaffiliated or a minor party -- by 8.0 percentage points. The partisan implications are likely a consequence of young people being much more likely to use the online system. For example, only 18.8 percent of registered voters are age 18-29, compared to 41.6 percent of online registrants. Women are also slightly more likely to use the online system compared to all registered voters, by 1.0 percentage points.

The analysis also points out future areas for research, particularly with regard to voters who are using the new online system to update traditional paper registrations:

A better comparison to understand online voter registration usage patterns is to examine those who registered for the first time using the old paper system and the new online system. Ideally, those who updated their registrations using the two systems would also be compared, but because of data limitations only those who used the online system to update their registrations can be identified. There were 49,712 people who used the online system to initiate a new registration and 75,107 who used it to update an existing registration. There were 197,056 new registrants who used the old system to initiate a new registration since the online system went live on July 1, 2012.

McDonald also notes some interesting disparities that could be a direct consequence of the move to technology:

Notably, the online pattern is evident despite another well-known divide that might work against it, where rural areas have less broadband access than urban areas. Fewer new registrants used the online system in more rural, Republican areas of the state -- 8.1 percent of new registrations using the old system originated from eleven counties in the panhandle or Delmarva peninsula, compared with 6.3 percent using the online system.

Another important takeaway from this initial snapshot is that online registration isn't just valuable for new registrants - as the data suggests, existing voters are also finding it useful to for updating their records as they move. Studies like McDonald's are going to be vital as states continue the move toward online registration; the data they provide will be invaluable in helping design an experience that works for all voters regardless of who they are or where they live.

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