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The Digital Vote: States and Nonprofits Push for Voter Registration Online

Let's start with the anatomy of a troll: First you email. Then you follow up with a text. Then, if all else fails, you place a phone call. All of this to get your kid in college to register to vote. Technology to the rescue?

"The only thing you should be thinking about when you're voting is who you're going to vote for. We want to make it so that you don't have to worry about the what, where, what forms," says Seth Flaxman, co-founder and executive director of Turbovote, a start up based in New York. He is interested in removing what he sees as the "friction" in the process of registering.

Turbovote is of one of a host of websites that try to make sure you are on the voter rolls ahead of the election. Which is nice. But Turbovote's real strength is that it won't give up on you after this election day November 6.

"More importantly, we keep you registered and help you vote in all of your elections, local to presidential over the course of your lifetime no matter where you move," Flaxman says.  He wants to make the registration process as easy as renting a DVD from Netflix. 

Turbovote is a non-profit, but the company does not just give the service away. Flaxman is selling it to a dozen non-profits and about 50 colleges, full of all those early-adopter college students. 

"Facebook showed that the best way to launch a service for everyone is to start on colleges," Flaxman said.  "So that's one of the ways we're starting out. And it's also where there's a lot of need for our service. If you're a college student, chances are you need to register or vote by mail."

Flaxman's company is pushing to get people signed up by tomorrow to allow enough time for registration materials to get to states with the earlier deadlines.

Meanwhile just the other day, California inaugurated its own system for online voter registration. The software can verify signatures using those on file for driver licenses. It's the twelfth state to do this. Proponents are waiting to see what happens when the crunch time hits the system, when the deadline for registering in California looms on Oct 22. 

"We saw a little bit of glitchiness on the first day when everyone was hitting it repeatedly, so there is concern about whether there's that capacity to handle what we expect to be a very heavy load," says Kim Alexander, president of the non-partisan California Voter Foundation, a non-profit which works to improve the voting system. "We have 6.5 million Californians who are eligible to vote and they have about a month to get registered if they want to vote in the Presidential election." 

Computerizing registration also helps with the age-old problem of clerks having to decipher handwriting on forms filled out with pen and paper. Computerized registration is one thing. As for actual online voting? There have been pilot projects, but it will be a while before we can vote in our pajamas. Problem number one: hacking.

About the author

David Brancaccio is the host of Marketplace Morning Report. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBrancaccio

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