COLUMBIA — South Carolina is awaiting federal clearance for its online voter registration law that gives residents an easier, faster path to the polls.
The law passed unanimously by the Legislature allows residents to register online, removing several steps from the paper process. Supporters tout the option as not only helping voters but also improving the accuracy of voter rolls while saving money.
The state Election Commission has the system ready to go. The agency expects to get the OK to launch it, said commission spokesman Chris Whitmire. Under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, South Carolina must receive Justice Department approval for any election law change.
The federal agency faces an Oct. 1 deadline to act on the law signed June 18 by Gov. Nikki Haley. The longer the wait, the fewer days residents have to use the easier path for voting in the Nov. 6 elections. State law requires registration at least 31 days out from an election.
The online system requires a driver’s license or Department of Motor Vehicles identification card number because information is checked through the DMV database. Once an application is accepted, voters would receive their registration card in the mail in as little as a day, Whitmire said.
Currently, the voter application is available online but must be printed and filled out, then sent in by mail, fax or email as a scanned attachment — or hand-delivered to the county election office.
“It just makes it so much easier,” Whitmire said. “Someone may want to vote but because they have a busy life, they don’t take the extra time to print it and fill it out and put it in an envelope and get a stamp — or drive 20 to 30 minutes to the county seat — so they just don’t get registered and vote.”
South Carolina could become the 13th state nationwide to implement online voter registration. California became No. 12 on Wednesday.
David Becker with Washington-based Pew Center on the States called the online option a “rare win-win in government” that transcends politics.
“It saves a ton of money,” said Becker, director of Pew’s election initiatives. “And the information is much more accurate and secure.”
Arizona, the first state to implement the option in 2002, spends 3 cents to process each electronic application, compared with 83 cents per paper version, according to a 2010 report. Four of every five voter applications in Arizona are now filled out online, Becker said.
Paper applications provide several opportunities for data-entry errors, including misinterpreted handwriting or typos that result in incorrect birthdays, addresses or Social Security numbers being entered in the state’s voter registration system.
“When that happens, we get a record that’s not correct,” Whitmire said. “One number off on a birthdate might make it look like we have a person born in 1890 still voting.”
Another provision of the online registration law is designed to further clean up the database. It requires the DMV to provide the Election Commission with information each month on people who have moved to another state and gotten a license there.
Barbara Zia, president of the League of Women Voters in South Carolina, said the nonprofit plans to publicize the option once it’s available. She noted not all residents can easily access the Internet.
But “it’s one more avenue to engage eligible citizens in the Democratic process, so we’re thrilled,” she said. “Whatever makes it easier for voters to get involved in our democracy works for us.”
However, she does have concerns about the requirement that residents have a driver’s license or DMV card, saying that could be problematic for some. That’s the root issue for critics, including the league, of a separate law approved by the Legislature last year.
It requires voters to show government-issued photo identification at the polls, such as a driver’s license or DMV card, which residents could obtain for free. But the Justice Department blocked that law from taking effect, saying it would disenfranchise minority voters. The state attorney general has challenged that decision, and the case is still pending in federal court.