WASHINGTON (AP) — Oh, how times have changed since the days of punch card ballots and hanging chads.
Come 2016 when the nation picks its next president, a record number of Americans will have the option of registering online and voting early. That has some people warning of voter fraud, while others are celebrating the flexibility as a way to make sure more people are heard on Election Day.
“This year has been a good year for opening access,” said Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union voting rights project. But “these things can turn on a dime as long as partisans detect ways to gain advantage by changing the rules.”
Among the biggest change next year: more voters will be able to go online to register to vote, according to data released Wednesday by the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonpartisan public policy group.
When President Barack Obama was first elected in 2008, only two states — Arizona and Washington — offered a website where citizens could register. By 2016, a majority of states may be offering that service, with 20 states already offering online registration and seven more considering it or having passed legislation that would authorize it.
“I think eventually despite resistance among a small number of people … we’re eventually going to see every state adopt this,” said Michael McDonald, a voting expert and associate professor at the University of Florida.
What’s more is that five states will let citizens register to vote online without a state identification or driver’s license: California, Delaware, Minnesota, Missouri, and Virginia.
The Pew Charitable Trusts says online voting systems, which cost an average $249,000 each, help cut down on errors resulting from bad handwriting and will reduce time spent by voters in line on Election Day.
Also continuing a trend, more Americans are expected to vote before Election Day in 2016.
In 2000, when George W. Bush and Al Gore were in a tight race for the presidency, less than 16 percent of Americans voted in advance, either by mail-in ballots or in-person at a designated county site. By the 2008 presidential election, the number of advance votes nationwide jumped to 34 percent.
The increase in advance voting comes in part because states are loosening the rules with mail-in ballots or setting up centers that accept ballots before Election Day. In 2014, Colorado, Washington and Oregon relied entirely on mail-in ballots.
McDonald said he thinks the next major development in voting will be emailed ballots, something already being done for many military voters stationed overseas and in places like Alaska where residents are more remote.
“Voters like the convenience of receiving their ballots electronically, and I think we’re just going to see more of this in the future,” McDonald said.
Perhaps the only aspect of voting that hasn’t changed since the turn of the century is the reluctance by states to let people cast ballots online because of security concerns. When the District of Columbia experimented with an online voting system in 2010, hackers broke in and changed votes to go to fictional characters.
“I think we’re a long way from the security that we’d need to have voting online,” said the ACLU’s Ho.
Here’s a look at what else has changed since the last U.S. presidential election:
— Several states are tweaking their registration sites with smartphones in mind, offering mobile friendly features.
— States are using technology to analyze voter data. Colorado, for example, notes the number of new online voter registrations in a certain time period and updates to old ones. That can help states identify trends.
— States are doing more to accommodate citizens who struggle with English or have disabilities, such as offering text-to-speech software for blind people.
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