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Will Online Voter Registration in Pennsylvania Boost Latino Voting?

When you are home to America's Liberty Bell, are the birthplace of American democracy, the site of the writing and signing of the U.S. Constitution, adopting online voter registration just seemed to make sense, the state's top election official surmises.

Since last Thursday, the 9.6 million or so voting eligible Pennsylvania residents who have not yet registered have been able to do so online with a new voting site (votespa.gov) the state has created. And since the launch, the state has logged more than 3,500 new registrations, said Pedro Cortés, Pennsylvania's Secretary of State.

"In Pennsylvania, our goal has been to increase access to the ballot and promote the rise of the franchise," said Cortés. (Officially Pennsylvania is a commonwealth, but Cortés uses secretary of state to avoid confusion.)

Thus far, 22 other states have already begun online voter registration, Cortés said. Five others and the District of Columbia have begun advancing legislation.

"Pennsylvania needed to be next. We are the birthplace of our democracy," said Cortés, who grew up in Carolina, Puerto Rico but who has lived in the mainland U.S. since his college days.

The move toward easier - and according to Pew Charitable Trust surveys, more efficient - voter registration runs counter to the string of states that after the 2008 election of President Barack Obama began implementing tougher voting laws that required voter identification at the polls, narrowed the options for what identification was accepted, cut early voting days and restricted rules around voter registration drives.

The new laws have touched off protests and lawsuits and created a partisan battle over whether the new laws were intended to suppress voting by Latinos, blacks and other minorities, whose presence at the polls was critical to Obama's election and re-election.

Pennsylvania's online registration is being made available in English and Spanish.

Katherine Culliton-González, director of Voter Protection for the Advancement Project, a civil rights group, said the move to the online system is a positive one.

"Pennsylvania is home to over 540,000 Latino citizens over 18, and in 2014, only 37.7 percent were registered. Among Pennsylvania’s one million African-American citizens of voting age, in 2014, their registration rate in Pennsylvania was also currently lower than in other states, at 49.2 percent, whereas the average rate of registration in the Commonwealth was 61.7 percent," she said.

Pennsylvania's population of about 12.7 million is about 6.3 percent Hispanic, 11.5 percent black and about 78 percent white.

"Having the application online and in Spanish represents a recognition on our part that Latinos are the fastest growing segment of the population," Cortés said. Other election services materials already were offered in Spanish so the online registration application was "a natural evolution." he said, adding that other languages would follow.

Switching to an online system also is a "financially responsible way of recognizing we have limited resources and should find efficiency as much as possible." Cortés said.

If Pennsylvania's experience is like the experience of other states that have gone online for voter registration, the savings could be from 50 cents to $2.34 per application, based on Pew's surveys, he said. He said the system also helps cut down on problems with paper ballots when people have failed to provide full information - which requires return calls to the applicant - illegible writing or other such problems.

The online registration supplements the current paper process and won't replace it, so individuals who don't have computer or broadband access can still submit by paper. The online registration also can be done through a mobile device, Cortés said.

"Our Gov. Tom Wolf, part of his campaign was greater access to government participation, and voting is one of the most fundamental rights of citizenship and part of the Constitution," Cortés said. "Pennsylvania is happy to join those states using this tool."

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