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Colorado announces text voter registration: Will more voters show up?

Colorado takes one step further into digitizing its voting process. Even in a new age of voting registration, many of the factors that temper interest in civic participation are still present.

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    A woman looks at the screen after using an electronic voting machine at the Denver Elections Division headquarters in downtown Denver October 25, 2012.
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With voter turnout rates in the United States trailing most developed nations, Colorado is looking to make the process of registering to vote as simple as sending a text message.

Coloradans can now start the voter registration process by texting "Colorado" or "CO" to "2Vote" (28683) on a smartphone. They'll then receive a link to the state's online voter registration page to complete the process, and, if they meet the criteria, just like that, they'll be eligible to vote in November.

In the 2012 presidential election, only 53.6 percent of eligible voters in the United States actually turned out to vote, according to Pew Research calculations. And while ease of registration may not be as big a factor in overcoming voter apathy or driving older, already discouraged voters to the polls, the added convenience could make a difference in getting young voters to participate in the electoral system for the first time, analysts say.

"The discouraged citizen has been around for a while. So making imprints on the margin, especially for younger people, new voters, that's very important," Stephen Ansolabehere, professor of government at Harvard University, tells The Christian Science Monitor. "People between 18 and 29 have the lowest registration rates, so this reform will be particularly useful." Texting and Millennials go hand in hand, after all. 

Colorado's texting initiative is part of a bigger move to make all election administration electronic and easier to use and to integrate systems like voter registration with the polling place and the electronic voting system. The hope is that making the voter registration process more convenient, as Colorado is proposing, will still win over some new voters. The idea to make voter registration available at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) was one of the first ways voter registration became more convenient, and today, the DMV is the largest source of voting registration forms. With fewer young people getting drivers' licenses, however, online voter registration may serve as a vital avenue for registration for people who aren't registered at the DMV. 

"There's still a pretty large percentage of people who, when asked by the US Census why they didn't vote, say, I had a problem with my registration, or I wasn't registered, or there was a difficulty when I got to the polls. That's what this technology is designed to fix," says Dr. Ansolabehere.

Colorado is a pioneer in fully online voter registration, adopting the system in 2010. By the 2014 midterm election, 86 percent of eligible Coloradans were registered to vote, the highest rate in the nation.

"It's one-stop shopping for all the elections information anyone would need," Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams said in a statement introducing the new texting feature Wednesday. "In today's on-demand society, we're staying one step ahead addressing the needs of millennials, Gen-Xers and anyone who wants information immediately.”

For many voters, however, the decision to sit out an election likely has more to do with frustration with the choice of candidates and the political process itself.

"The big problem with voting in this country isn't the difficulty of voting – it's the motivation to vote. You can look at the outcome of American elections and get the impression that it makes little difference which party you vote for," Mark Franklin, co-editor of The Journal of Elections Public Opinion and Parties, tells the Monitor.

"Of course strong partisans think it does," Dr. Franklin adds. "But they're registered anyways." For those with a lesser interest in politics, "they look at the elections and they see Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee which doesn't really motivate them to go and vote."

Another roadblock to voter engagement is the fact that so many congressional races are uncontested, says Franklin. Fewer than half (41.6 percent) of incumbents seeking re-election in 2014 faced a challenger. "For most Americans, the midterm election has an outcome that’s a forgone conclusion," Franklin says. And low turnout in midterm elections is often a predictor of low turnout in the next general election.

The presidential campaigns are the heart of voter registration efforts. People pay attention to the presidential races and want to participate in the process. Kip Malinosky, chair of the Arlington Democrats, has been involved in an extensive voter registration drive underway in Virginia, a battleground state. He has found people are often uncomfortable filling out a paper registration form, which requires a Social Security number, and then handing it to a volunteer.

But Virginia is one of 31 states that allows an online voter registration alternative. "A lot of people just go on their own phone and go to vote.virginia.gov, pull it up and register to vote in three minutes,” Mr. Malinosky tells the Monitor.

Online voting can address the numerous other pitfalls of the typical voter registration drive, as Charles Stewart III, political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., enumerates. You have a big stack of voter registration forms, people pick them up, fill them out, may or may not turn them back in to be mailed or mail them themselves. If there's an error on the form, it might not be caught until the voting registration office. The online voter registration system goes through immediately and more easily detects errors.

Though some believe more online voter registration will benefit the Democrats, Dr. Stewart says according to reports he's seen of states going to online voter registration, the registration rates of online voter registrants tend to almost mimic completely the existing party ratios of people already registered.

"The evidence I've seen is this is not going to be the way that you register a whole lot more Democrats. It is going to be the way to get a lot more good voter registration records," Stewart says. "That's the reason for doing it."

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