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Aug. 22, 2014 SIGN IN | REGISTER
Roll Call

Groups Behind Internet Blackout Launch Online Drive to Register Voters

The groups behind last winter's Internet blackout are working to boost voter participation among a newly empowered "Internet public."

Internet Votes, a coalition made up of groups including Fight for the Future, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and MoveOn.org, has launched an online voter registration and mobilization drive that relies on the power of online sharing - the same strategy the community used in January to quash Congressional proposals to combat online piracy.

"Never before has such a highly connected network of people been engaged in a voter registration effort," said Andrew Rasiej, the co-founder of Internet Votes. "If we want to make sure that the Internet remains free and open, we have to remind Congress that we actually vote."

Twelve states now offer online voter registration. Last week California became the latest to launch a registration platform, although residents who do not already have driver's licenses or state identification cards must still register on paper. Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Nevada, New York, Oregon, Utah and Washington state currently have or will soon offer online voter registration, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Internet Votes isn't promoting or evaluating specific candidates based on Internet policies but rather is trying to mobilize a generation that already expects to be able to do everything online, Rasiej said.

The campaign, funded by the Ford Foundation, is one of many ways that voting modernization advocates are working to overhaul the voting process for the digital era.

The engine behind the effort is a new platform called TurboVote that not only helps voters register but also aims to connect users to the electoral system for life by sending region-specific text messages and emails with updates on local elections and deadlines.

"Every single American wants to have a better, more tech-savvy voting experience," said Seth Flaxman, co-founder and executive director of Democracy Works, the nonprofit that created TurboVote. "We do everything online; voting should fit the way we live."

Users fill out voter registration or vote-by-mail forms online, and the company uses that data to print official documents, which it then snail-mails to users for a signature with an envelope pre-addressed to the voter's local election board.

TurboVote signed up about 25,000 student voters in the past two weeks through partnerships with more than 50 colleges and universities, Flaxman said.

But most importantly, the company holds on to cellphone numbers and email addresses so it can keep eligible voters informed from cycle to cycle regardless of where they move.

Internet activists flexed their muscles last winter in opposition to a pair of bills intended to combat online piracy - the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House and the PROTECT IP Act in the Senate. Thousands of popular websites including Wikipedia, Reddit and Craigslist went dark for 24 hours to protest the legislation, which would have allowed the government to bring legal action against copyright infringers.

The groups' voter mobilization effort is "in some ways recasting the traditional relationship between voter and election offices. It has typically been a voter-initiated process," said Doug Chapin, an election policy expert at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. "Just having the opportunity to have voter registration follow a voter from place to place through a push rather than a pull relationship is a change."

TurboVote plans to start a pilot program with county election offices and integrate its system with the 12 states that now offer online voter registration.

While Flaxman hopes that more states will follow the path of Oregon, which relies exclusively on mail-in voting, others foresee an inevitable transition to online voting.

"We will have Internet voting - people sending ballots across the Internet - someday," Chapin said. "The fistfights and hair pulling start when you try to define 'someday.'"

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