Online Voter Registration in Minnesota: What a Difference a Day Makes

On Monday, a state court judge ordered Minnesota's online voter registration system shut down by midnight on Tuesday, finding it was not authorized by existing statutes. On Tuesday, the Minnesota Senate passed and Governor Dayton signed a bill to reinstate online voter registration. That's right -- online voter registration is so convenient and cost-effective that it took a whole day for Minnesota lawmakers and the governor to decide that voters shouldn't be deprived of it for even a second. And so it continued uninterrupted.

What lessons can we learn from Minnesota's experience?

First, in the ideal scenario, a state should pass authorizing legislation before implementing online voter registration. While statutes such as Minnesota's Uniform Electronic Transactions Act arguably can serve as the basis for OVR (the judge here disagreed), there is nothing like express authority in a statute that the legislature has considered and passed with eyes wide open. It removes any doubt that the system is legal, and averts any lawsuits like the one that is mooted by last night's enactment.

Second, notwithstanding Lesson No. 1, it is to Secretary of State Mark Ritchie's credit that Minnesota now has permanent online voter registration going forward. Minnesota state law created a plausible basis for creating an online registration system, and the Secretary did so, allowing voters to get a taste of 21st century voting. Once they did, it was impossible to go back. More than 3,600 Minnesotans used the online system since September. The lesson here is that pushing the envelope in creating new opportunities to register and cast a ballot can drive change in the Legislature. Here, an administrative reform forced legislators to play catch-up and effectively ratify an instantly popular, forward-thinking reform.

Third, OVR has broad bipartisan support nationwide, and the remaining disagreements are solely over security and privacy issues. Earlier this month, the state House moved to expressly grant Secretary Ritchie legislative authority for this innovation, passing the OVR bill by a 129-2 margin. The vote in the Senate yesterday, with a 41-24 margin, was narrower, with only three Republicans joining the Democratic majority. Sixty-two of 89 Republican state legislators backed the legislation, but Republican state senators called for greater security and privacy measures. Those concerns can still be addressed without interrupting the system's operation.

Fourth, OVR is here to stay. Missouri is currently operating an "all-but-OVR" system that allows voters to complete their end of the registration process online. The system isn't completely electronic though, since a paper application is still sent from the Secretary of State's office to the local clerk, but from the voter's perspective, it's fully automated. New York's system is a similar hybrid, but paperless for the voter. If one counts New York and Missouri, then 19 states are operating online voter registration systems. Four more states, including Hawaii, Illinois, Nebraska, and West Virginia, have passed OVR but not implemented it yet, and three other states, including Michigan, New Mexico, and Ohio, have limited online tools that allow some or all updates to registration records. The overwhelming majority of full OVR systems have been implemented since 2010, and the wave shows no sign of abating. It is hard to remember the last time Americans and their representatives did so much agreeing with each other on anything. A sign that a good idea's time has come.