An electronic signature is accepted by the IRS for most tax return forms. We use one to sign job contracts or apartment leases. There’s also a subset of binding digital signatures used in legal and business proceedings.
In 2022, it seems we conduct nearly all transactions online. So why does voter registration remain stuck in the past?
Despite the increase in online voter registration options, there are some important caveats.
Over the past decade, 42 states and Washington, D.C. have enacted online voter registration, a huge convenience for many voters. However, in all but a handful of states (Delaware, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Vermont), a voter needs a driver’s license to register online.
This is because driver’s license records have a signature on file. In 1993, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act, which, among other provisions, required voter registration opportunities to be offered at motor vehicle agencies. When an individual interacts with the agency — through a license application, renewal or update of address — the agency must give the individual the option to register to vote.
If a voter does not have a license, and consequently has not interacted with the motor vehicle agency, their signature will not yet be on file and typically cannot take advantage of online voter registration.
To summarize, if a voter lives in one of the eight states that does not offer online voter registration (notably, Texas — we’ll get back to this later) or lives in a state that does, but does not have a driver’s license, then they must print, sign and mail or fax the voter registration form to their elections office.
Just weeks before the 2018 midterms, a third-party voter registration organization and the state of Texas came head to head over this very issue.
With these limitations in mind, Vote.org, the largest nonpartisan registration and get-out-the-vote nonprofit in the country, upgraded its web application in 2018 to allow voters without access to online registration to “sign” their forms by taking a photo of their signature. Vote.org would then place that signature onto the voter registration form and allow it to be submitted via fax or email.
Andrea Hailey, CEO of Vote.org, told Democracy Docket that “Vote.org identified that very low printer ownership, particularly among young voters and voters of color, creates a substantial barrier to obtaining a printed form to sign by hand.” Hailey noted that her organization is “acting as a concierge, essentially giving voters the tools to streamline their registration submission.”
After successfully rolling out this tool in Alaska, Colorado, Kansas, South Carolina and Washington, D.C., Vote.org came to Texas. From late September to early October 2018, over 2,400 individuals utilized the application to submit their voter registration forms across several Texas counties. Less than a week before the voter registration deadline, the Texas secretary of state announced that the registrations submitted through the app were not valid.
“We remind all eligible Texas voters that online voter registration is not available in the State of Texas,” wrote then-secretary Rolando Pablos (R) in a press release. “Any web site that misleadingly claims to assist voters in registering to vote online by simply submitting a digital signature is not authorized to do so.”
The secretary of state’s office emphasized that registration applications require original signatures — meaning signed with pen on paper. They argued that a handwritten signature that was then photographed and affixed digitally did not count.
In 2021, Texan lawmakers codified this rule into law, requiring individuals who submit their registration applications through fax to also provide a copy of their application “containing the voter’s original signature.”
Texas’ original signature requirement, also known as a wet signature law, is currently being challenged in court.
Vote.org is now challenging this law in federal court. The lawsuit argues that this requirement unduly burdens the right to vote and targets voting advocacy groups in violation of the First and 14th Amendments and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
If a Texas voter renews their license, they will enter a signature on an electronic device, which is then stored within the state agency and used to create or update voter registration records. The complaint points to this fact to show the inconsistency and lack of compelling state interest. Additionally, electronic signatures have long been recognized within Texas law.
According to the complaint, the wet signature requirement is immaterial to determining whether a voter is qualified, yet it will deprive Texas voters of their constitutional right to vote. “These requirements have nothing to do with the actual constitutional requirements for voting eligibility, they simply add barriers like access to printers and stamps,” Hailey added. “Each time there is an additional step in the registration process, there are groups of voters who are disenfranchised.”
Along with Texas, Georgia and Oklahoma have statutory provisions that explicitly require wet signatures for voter registration. Florida’s voter suppression bill passed in 2021 included a provision that requires a wet signature on file to be used when a signature is verified at the polls. Though less clear, elections officials have released guidance in several other states, including Maine, Montana and Ohio, that imply the need for original signatures to register. In several other states, a wet signature is required when an individual requests a mail-in ballot.
Americans shouldn’t need a driver’s license or printer to ensure a smooth voter registration process.
The percentage of Americans getting drivers licenses is decreasing for all age groups, but especially for the youngest generations. For these prospective voters, the only remaining option is to print and mail their application. This can be prohibitive for those without printers. These combined burdens disproportionately affect young and low-income voters.
According to Hailey, Vote.org conducted a survey of nearly 4,000 SNAP benefits recipients in 2020; they found that just under 21% had a printer at home. “Especially during the pandemic with public libraries closed, this was a major barrier to registering to vote or voting by mail in wet signature states like Texas, Florida, and Georgia,” she added.
Hailey went further than criticism — she drew the connection between wet signature requirements and the literacy tests of the Jim Crow era. Throughout history, the hurdles constructed to discourage people from voting have evolved with society and technology. While major legislation in the 20th century outlawed literacy tests and other voter suppression tools, “today we have barriers like ‘wet-signature’ or pen-and-ink requirements,” Hailey concluded.
It’s not always the flashiest law or the most well known or understandable provision that deters voters. The mundane, technical details can have an equally devastating impact on access to the ballot box — groups like Vote.org recognize the importance of dismantling all barriers, big and small.