States launch online voter registration sites

Minnesota and Ohio have launched their own versions of an online tool to help military personnel and civilians living abroad navigate the maze of state and local voter registration requirements.

A third state, Alabama, has licensed the software, developed by the Overseas Vote Foundation (OVF), and expects to put its site online soon.

The same functionality already is available in a tool launched in October on the OVF Web site, which automates the voter registration process for all 50 states and five U.S. territories. But the state-hosted systems will let states brand and customize the tool.

'We are trying to reach out to more overseas voters, and we didn't want all roads to lead to OVF,' said foundation president Susan Dzieduszycka-Suinat.

State officials said they expect the tools to increase absentee voting by overseas residents.

'We strongly believe this site and the tools it provides will enhance our voter services to Ohio citizens abroad,' said Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. 'We expect to see a jump in participation in 2008.'

'We are looking forward to bringing a vastly increased number of registrations in from overseas citizen and active-duty military voters in 2008,' said Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie. 'Our new voter services will facilitate voting for members of the Minnesota National Guard, many of whom will be first-time military voters this year.'

The Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Voting Act assures citizens away from home the right to register to vote and receive absentee ballots in U.S. elections, but that right often is thwarted by a tangle of arbitrary, unclear and burdensome processes that vary from state to state, advocates say. As a result, election participation by the estimated 6 million overseas citizens eligible to vote ' many of them military servicemen and women ' has historically been low.

The OVF registration tool eases the first step in the process, which is registering as a voter. The application provides a common front end for all state registration processes. It automatically loads required questions for the appropriate state and county, prompts users through the answering process with drop-down lists, and generates a completed PDF application that can be printed, signed and mailed. It also generates a list of instructions for voter registration in the user's home jurisdiction, along with the address for mailing the application.

The tool is one of a suite of new voter assistance applications hosted on the OVF home page, created with help from a grant from the Pew Charitable Trust's Make Voting Work initiative. Other applications include a directory of state and local election officials and a directory of state-specific overseas voting regulations, a help desk backed by a knowledge base to answer common questions, personal accounts that store information to speed up subsequent registration applications and an application form for federal write-in ballots.

The JEHT Foundation has provided a grant to help states adopt the tools, picking up a third of the first year's cost of licensing the software for the next 10 states to take part.

'What was a $15,000 investment in the first year will be a $10,000 investment,' Dzieduszycka-Suinat said. 'It originally was our intent to give it away free,' she said of the software, using a $600,000 appropriation included in the 2007 Defense Department budget. But when that money went instead to the Federal Voting Assistance Program, 'we had to change strategies.'

Fees go to cover the cost of customizing the software for the states, hosting, bandwidth and other OVF operational expenses. 'We have hard costs that we have to be able to support,' Dzieduszycka-Suinat said. 'We want to remain in operation for the long term.'

Although the new sites are state-specific, they are hosted by OVF on its servers in Virginia. The states typically make the site match the look and feel of their own state Web sites. Each state also can tweak the application. Minnesota has made changes in the flow of questions on its application form and the display of some information.

'Anything that Minnesota changes, we follow their lead,' making the same changes in the tool on the OVF site, Dzieduszycka-Suinat said. 'If they customize anything, we use the customized version. They are the boss.'

In addition to the registration tool, the state sites also have the directory of state election officials and voter information, a voter help desk, federal write-in ballot applications and the personal voter account. OVF also is developing a reporting dashboard that the states can use to track site usage.

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