The Costs of Modernizing Voter Registration Systems: A Case Study of California and Arizona

Burd-Sharps, Sarah


Faced with questions concerning the costs of modernizing voter registration systems, the American Civil Liberties Union engaged the Social Science Research Council to conduct research on the topic. This report resulted from that work.

Even though the Internet makes it possible for us to pay bills, bank, shop, and read books without the use of paper, registering to vote, whether in person or by mail, still involves filling out paper applications in most states. However, this is steadily changing as more and more states move their voter registration systems online. Through this process, they are realizing substantial cost savings, greatly reducing the administrative burden on elections officials, decreasing the potential for fraud, and making the voter registration process more accurate, efficient, and convenient. 

This report presents cost savings that resulted from voter registration reforms with a focus on Arizona and California. Arizona is of interest for this case study because it was the first state to begin the process of building a modern voter registration system (it began in 2002). Furthermore, its largest county, Maricopa, has been innovative in terms of modernization efforts and studying the resulting cost savings. California is a focus for this case study because it is one of the most advanced states in terms of online voter modernization efforts and because it reports reliable cost figures in a significantly more populous state than Arizona. In addition, California’s system offers a way for those without a driver’s license or state-issued ID to register online, an important innovation that eliminates a major impediment to ballot access for certain populations.

In most states, primary responsibility for registering voters and administering elections falls to county and local officials. Since the passage of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) in 2002, state governments have the additional responsibility of maintaining a unified statewide record of registered voters. States, counties, municipalities, and other local jurisdictions share the cost of registering voters. What constitutes a modern voter registration system? For the purposes of this report, a modern system has five important features. No state today has a system with all of these features, but an increasing number are moving toward systems incorporating several of these five features: 

1. A secure website for remote paperless registration. 

2. Automated/paperless registration.

3. Access for those without state-issued identification.

4. Online availability at all government service agencies.

5. Accessibility for people with disabilities.