Washington State Ramps Up Voter Registration With Facebook Push

Washington state, which has allowed online voter registration since 2008, is looking to reach potential voters via their favorite Internet haunt, Facebook. 

The state is rolling out a Facebook application later this week that will allow eligible state residents to register to vote from their Facebook page. Designed by Microsoft, the application or API (application programming interface) will put a screen from the official state website into a user’s Facebook page, and will automatically add some of the information already in a Facebook profile, including name and date of birth.

The initiative on Facebook hasn’t been formally launched, but it was mentioned by Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed at a conference over the weekend. Facebook declined to comment.

Rock the Vote also launched a new feature on Friday that directly connects its voter-education and registration effort with Washington’s online voter registration system.

The novelty here is that preliminary information entered into the Rock the Vote site will automatically populate in Washington's voter-registration page. The state's registration page loads in a frame that appears within the Rock the Vote site.

“This is a great way to push the use of our online registration system. Especially for younger folks,” said Shane Hamlin, codirector of elections in Washington.

Washington has 3.7 million registered voters, according to figures supplied by the secretary of state's office. The state has processed 475,000 new registrations and updates online since the system was launched in 2008. So far this year, 32 percent of all voter registrations were done online, not counting those done on-site at the state's motor vehicle department. Voters under 34 account for 62 percent of online registrants, according to data covering 2010 and 2011.

Democrat Jay Inslee, who recently retired from the U.S. House of Representatives, is facing Republican state Attorney General Rob McKenna in a closely watched governor’s race. The Seattle Times reported on Saturday that McKenna is dramatically outspending Inslee online, with $103,619 going to McKenna’s online advertising, compared with $3,070 for Inslee over the past 13 months. McKenna has spent $10,417 on Facebook ads over this period.

Developers from Rock the Vote worked with Washington state elections officials to offer what Hamlin calls a "seamless transition" for someone using Rock the Vote to the official online voter-registration interface.

Rock the Vote will receive updates on its work from the state, including information about how many of its users completed their registration, and whether they were ultimately qualified to vote, says Heather Smith, president of Rock the Vote. She expects 50,000 new Washington voters to register online using the new system during the current election cycle.

New voters who register via Rock the Vote can be reached by e-mail and text message with updates about Rock the Vote events and voting information if they opt to supply their contact information to the organization as part of the registration process.

Washington requires its online registrants to have a state-issued identification number for verification. To prevent duplicate registration, the state’s system will reroute a user with an already-registered state ID number to a page that gives information about upcoming elections and allows voters to update their addresses and other information.

The use of information collected by a third party online presented new challenges for the state, in terms of protecting personally identifiable information. Rock the Vote and any other organizations that use a similar interface for online registration will be given the choice to tag registrations with a code that identifies the organization. However, that information, once collected, is public and can be requested by anyone interested in reviewing voter registrations.

It will be made clear to groups funneling potential voters to register with the state that such information will be public, Hamlin said, and it will be up to them whether or not to supply an organizational ID.

Rock the Vote hopes to eventually extend its work to all states that offer online voter registration. The organization is building an interface to work with systems in Oregon and Nevada. It is also in talks with California, where Smith expects an online registration system to be up and running by Labor Day.

Online voter registration is also allowed in Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, and Utah.

“Setting up Washington helped provide a nice model,” Smith said. “It should be fairly simple for us to replicate it state-by-state.“

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