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Pa. voters can now register online

HARRISBURG - You can order groceries online these days, stream live TV, hail a cab, and schedule when your dry cleaning will be picked up.

HARRISBURG - You can order groceries online these days, stream live TV, hail a cab, and schedule when your dry cleaning will be picked up.

As of Thursday, Pennsylvania residents can add another item to the list: register to vote.

Gov. Wolf announced that the state had launched a website that allows its 10 million or so eligible voters to submit a registration application online.

The initiative makes Pennsylvania the 23d state to digitize registration. New Jersey is not one of them.

In other states, benefits have ranged from cost savings to more accurate voter lists.

In Colorado, with about 3.5 million registered voters, the online system has logged about 1.2 million transactions, including 175,000 new registrants, since its launch in April 2010, according to Lynn Bartels, spokeswoman for the secretary of state.

Increasing turnout on election days may be a more complicated process, local election officials and political observers cautioned, because having more registered voters does not guarantee more votes.

Even as the state's voter registration numbers ballooned between 1992 and 2012, for example, the percentage of registered voters who turned out in presidential contests fell by about 15 percent, according to data from the Department of State.

Still, many experts praised Thursday's announcement as a long-overdue step into the 21st century.

"You can sign up for a credit card online in a couple seconds, send money around the world in a couple seconds," said David Thornburgh, executive director of the Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia-based nonpartisan watchdog group.

The site, www.register.votesPA.com, allows voters to enter information such as name, age, address, and party affiliation. The form is then routed to the county in which they live and processed, officials said.

First-time voters can use the website if they have a Department of Transportation-issued identification that has their signature. If not, they can fill out the form, print it, sign it, and mail it in.

The website also allows registered voters to update their information.

That could be significant for election officials, said Philadelphia City Commissioner Al Schmidt. Errors frequently occur when registering by hand, he said, for reasons such as illegible handwriting.

Thornburgh noted that many people, particularly college students, fail to update their registration when they move, in part because it must be done by hand. As many as 25 percent of voter records may be inaccurate or out of date in Philadelphia, he said.

By making it easier for voters to update information, Thornburgh said, the database could become much more accurate. And that would be helpful to government entities and campaigns that rely on the lists to communicate with voters.

"This is not going to happen overnight," he said. "But over time, I think, it helps level the playing field."

By 5 p.m. Thursday, more than 600 people had signed up online, said Wanda Murren, press secretary for the Department of State.

Frank Custer, spokesman for Montgomery County, said officials there expected few disruptions from whatever influx of new voters may result from the site.

"This is a step in making it easier to register," he said. "It's not an earthquake in terms of process."

Pedro Cortes, who heads the state department that oversees elections, said the cost of developing the website's software was about $200,000. He said the savings to the state and the counties over time would be substantial and more than compensate for the cost of implementing it.

He cited a May 2015 report by the Pew Charitable Trusts that states using online registration saw savings ranging from 50 cents to $2.34 per application.

In Arizona, which in 2002 became the first state to implement online registration, election officials said, it costs three cents for an online application, compared with 83 cents for a paper form.

In Pennsylvania, the state currently prints paper copies of voter registration forms and mails them, Cortes said, a cost eliminated when a voter registers online.

Counties will achieve savings by cutting down on overtime for election workers, who often find themselves dealing with a crush of registration applications, he said, particularly in presidential years.

"The efficiencies and the savings are multiple," Cortes said.

Administration officials said it is more secure to register online because the application will be sent directly to a voter's county registration office for processing. With a paper application, a voter's personal information might pass through several hands before the registration is complete.

The Pew study reported no security breaches in any of the states using an online system.

While many officials hope the system leads to increased turnout, they were quick to temper expectations.

Murren said that about 80 percent of eligible adults are already registered, meaning there are about two million people who have yet to sign up to vote. Officials aren't expecting this move to make a huge dent in that number.

"We just want this to be another tool," she said.

Even if Pennsylvania's system works wonders, experts say, recent history shows it's been difficult to attract a satisfying percentage of registered voters to the polls.

"Now people just have to show up and vote," Schmidt said.

717-787-5934@AngelasInk

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