California’s online voter registration plan on hold

Arizonans can register online to vote, thanks to a system created by the state in four months at a cost of $100,000. Washington state did the same thing in seven months for $270,000.

But two years after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger authorized a similar system in California, the project has stalled and is in turmoil. Officials say state voters may not have access to paperless registration for four more years, after a separate $53.4-million computer system modernization is completed.

Citing inadequate performance, Secretary of State Debra Bowen in May ended a contract with the consultant who had been hired to develop the updated system that is needed before online registration can be accommodated. The resulting delay will mean the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in savings.

Voter-rights advocates are frustrated that the effort to simplify participation in elections is not likely to be in place for the 2012 presidential contest.

“It’s hard to understand why we are having so much difficulty doing something that other states have been able to accomplish,” said Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause.

Bowen and her staff share a “substantial’” part of the blame for the project’s problems, said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., because ultimately it’s Bowen’s job to pick the right contractor, scale the project so it is feasible, tell the contractor what needs to be done and oversee the work.

Bowen said she had reduced the project’s scale to keep costs down and took decisive action early when it appeared to be in trouble. She said she had to move cautiously because of the high stakes involved.

“If it’s not done right and we try to use it in an election, it would be disastrous.”

She said other states’ efforts are not comparable to California’s. “There is no precedent in any other state for this, because California is enormous,” she said.

In addition, Arizona and Washington already had statewide computer databases modern enough to allow online registration once minor improvements were made, she said. California’s government is riddled with decades-old computer systems, some of which are on the verge of collapse despite millions in taxpayer money spent on consultants and software overhauls.

There are 6.5 million Californians who are eligible to vote but not registered, according to Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation, which promotes the use of technology to improve voter participation.

Currently, Californians can fill out a voter registration application online, but clerks must mail them a paper form to be signed and returned. The new system would allow a resident’s digitized signature, on file with the Department of Motor Vehicles, to complete the registration without paper.

“California is the home of Silicon Valley, the heart of the high-tech revolution, and yet we are stuck in this 19th century voter registration system,” Alexander said.

Each of California’s 58 counties maintains separate voter files and uploads its entire voter database to the state system each night. Records of new voters cannot be entered directly into the state system, because it is not sufficiently consolidated with county databases.

The trend nationwide is to allow voters to go online to register to vote or change an address, according to Christopher Ponoroff, an attorney who has studied the issue for the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. Seven states besides California have projects in the works to follow Arizona and Washington, and several others are considering such a move, Ponoroff said.

Paper registration “swamps election officials, burdens taxpayers and creates a risk for every voter that human error — a misplaced form, a data entry slip — will bar her access to the ballot box,” Ponoroff said in a recent report on the issue.

It’s also more expensive. The secretary of state’s office estimates it would save at least $200,000 a year by eliminating paper processing, and counties and the DMV would also reap savings.

California is under a federal mandate to bring its registration system up to date to prevent fraud and give residents easy access to the political process, according to Bowen, who took office in January 2007. And the federal government is paying for the modernization.

But online registration is not technically feasible, Bowen said, until the rest of the voter-registration system is updated.

“The system we are using … is bubble-gum and baling wire. It is not sufficiently robust or sophisticated to allow us to do anything close to online registration,” Bowen said.

State officials began planning the new system, called VoteCal, in 2006. It would allow the state to run up-to-the-minute lists of all voters in California, maintain registration histories in a central database and allow counties to do instant verification against criminal and death records, in addition to permitting complete online registration.

VoteCal was supposed to be ready by September of last year, but that was pushed back to 2011 and then 2012. A report by Bowen’s office last year estimated its cost at $51.1 million.

The system now is expected to be operating in June 2014 at a cost of $53.4 million, according to a report issued by Bowen’s office on Aug. 3.

Bowen said in a letter to legislators that she cancelled the state’s contract with the builder of the system, Catalyst Consulting Group, because the firm did not complete elements of the project on time, did not have adequate staffing and would miss the 2012 target date by more than a year.

“I would love to be out putting this to work in the counties next year,” Bowen said in an interview. “But in my judgment, the likelihood that we were going to have a complete train wreck and waste a phenomenal amount of money and not get something that was suitable was much too high to continue.”

To avoid protracted litigation, she said, she approved a settlement in which the state paid $1.8 million to the contractor, even though much of its work will have to be redone. She is seeking a new contractor.