SACRAMENTO, Calif. — California elections officials hope to make signing up to vote easier than ever through an online registration system that launched Wednesday.
Secretary of State Debra Bowen called the new process "great news for democracy." She was joined by state lawmakers and voter advocates in Sacramento to announce the web feature, which is being made available for the first time ahead of the November election.
Supporters say it will help more than 6 million Californians who are qualified but have not registered. Republicans had opposed the bill that created complete online registration, saying the change could lead to voter fraud and additional costs.
Under the new law, applicants can fill out a traditional paper form or complete a form online through the secretary of state's website or at www.registertovote.ca.gov . The application, which will include date of birth and the last four digits of the Social Security number, will be checked against their driver's license or the state identification card kept by the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
If the information matches, an electronic image of the applicant's DMV signature will be added to the application at the end of the process.
If no signature is on file with the DMV, applicants will have to print out the form and mail the completed version to their county elections office. That essentially is the same process in place now.
"Today, the Internet replaces the mailbox for thousands of Californians wishing to register to vote," Bowen said during a news conference.
She stressed that completing an online application does not lead to automatic registration. The information still has to be verified by county elections officials before an applicant is added to the voter rolls. A telephone message left for Assemblyman Dan Logue, R-Linda, who serves as vice chairman of the Assembly elections committee and voted against the bill, wasn't immediately returned Wednesday.
Californians have until Oct. 22 to register for the Nov. 6 general election, which features the presidential race and 11 statewide ballot initiatives.
The online application process is the result of legislation passed last year, SB397 by state Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco. It comes ahead of a long-delayed statewide voter database to comply with federal requirements.
Yee said online voter registration will improve accuracy, reduce costs and allow more people to participate in elections.
"Other states in this country are looking at ways to suppress voter participation. We here in California are looking at ways of increasing that participation," he said Wednesday.
Yee was referring to several swing states including Florida, Iowa, Nevada, Ohio and Pennsylvania, which are locked in politically charged legal battles over stricter voter ID laws.
California joins 11 other states that offer online registration, according to Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation. They include Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Utah and Washington.
While improving efficiency, Alexander warned there are some risks in using an online system. She said three states experienced glitches that temporarily crashed online systems.
Bowen said her staff has tested the system to ensure it will be able to handle large volumes of applicants.
As of May, 17.1 million of California's 23.7 million eligible voters — or 72 percent — were registered to vote.
Shasta County Registrar of Voters Cathy Darling Allen said she hopes online registration will entice younger voters — those between ages 18 and 27 — to register because they tend to be more digitally connected.
"A year from now, we'll be able to look and see who used it more and who used it less," she said.