Experts fear fraud in state bid to register voters electronically at DMV sites

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Date: Wednesday, June 13, 2012

ALBANY -- A state plan to allow motorists to register to vote electronically at the DMV -- and eventually online -- has triggered sharp push-back from local elections officials who fear it will make it harder to detect voter fraud.

But Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration says those fears, which center largely on the use of digital signatures, are based on a fundamentally flawed understanding of how the process would work at state Department of Motor Vehicle sites.

State and good-government groups contend the changes streamline the registration process and have been proved elsewhere as cheaper, more user-friendly and accurate.

Despite the claims, elections officials in Albany County, which is to be a pilot site for the program expected to fully roll out next year, say they won't accept the electronic registrations -- even as the Cuomo administration argues that state law gives them no choice.

"I think that it opens the door for fraud, plain and simple," said Rachel Bledi, the county Republican elections commissioner.

Bledi and Matthew Clyne, her Democratic counterpart, question whether state election law permits electronic signatures. Even if it did, the commissioners say they believe the quality of the signatures will make it more difficult to spot forgeries at the polls.

"When we go to court, the election law is clear that we need a real signature," Republican Rensselaer County Elections Commissioner Larry Bugbee said. "I don't see how anyone can agree to do it when it clearly violates the election law."

If nothing else, at a time when voter registration is taking center stage in a presidential election year, anxiety about New York's plans would seem to underscore significant confusion among the local officials who will be charged with carrying it out.

Part of the problem, local officials contend, is that they've been largely left in the dark about what to expect. Bledi said she learned Albany County was part of the pilot program in a memo late last month not from the DMV, but from the New York State Elections Commissioners Association, a professional group.

It is now not clear when the pilot program -- once apparently slated to start this month -- will begin.

Since 1995, states have been required by federal law to allow citizens to register to vote at DMV offices. But unlike other states like Arizona, Pennsylvania and California that have since shifted toward electronic registration, New York has kept its registrations exclusively on paper -- a process critics say is often fraught with delays and transcription errors.

The DMV plan, slated to be rolled out first in Albany and Orange counties, would use electronic VeriFone payment terminals similar to those in supermarkets and pharmacies to capture registration information electronically. Once the system is fully set up, the information would be transmitted digitally to local boards of election, which currently only receive hard copies.

The flash point for some local officials is how the new voters would sign their registration forms.

The signatures are a key part of the process because they form the baseline used by elections commissioners and the courts for comparison to signatures on designating petitions and absentee ballots when allegations of fraud surface-- like those that have rocked Troy Democrats in recent years.

The use of the terminals to collect the registration information has led some elections officials to believe the signatures would also be logged on them, forgoing the traditional ink on paper -- known as a "wet signature" -- for something they view as less reliable.

"When people go to the polls, they don't sign in with a digital signature," said Clyne, the Albany County Democratic commissioner. "There's certain things, they're time-tested. One of them is original signatures. With a digital signature, none of those things look like signatures. ... It's of no evidentiary use at all to the board."

Even two local county clerks who run DMV offices -- Frank Merola of Rensselaer County and Holly Tanner of Columbia County, both Republicans -- said they were left with the impression the signatures would be logged on the payment terminals.

But the Cuomo administration insists that's not the case. While the terminals will accept signatures because they will eventually also be used to process DMV credit card transactions, the signature that will be sent to the board of elections will be a digital scan of the ink-on-paper signature submitted with an application for state identification.

"It's not like somebody going in and signing in at Walmart," said Susan Bahren, the Democratic commissioner in Orange County who worked closely with a group of commissioners that helped the DMV develop the system.

Two administration officials involved in the program, but not cleared to speak about it publicly, also dismissed the argument that the use of digital signatures is barred under state election law. Election law, they said, requires county boards of elections to accept registration information from the DMV -- and subsequent legislation cleared the way for the use of electronic signatures.

"By modernizing this system, we'll reduce a current roadblock to democracy and at the same time make the system more efficient, less cumbersome, and less costly for taxpayers," said Rich Azzopardi, a Cuomo spokesman.

The changes are supported by the League of Women Voters of New York, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School and the Washington, D.C.-based Fair Elections Legal Network.

"It's just a common-sense proposal that makes our system work better," said Wendy Weiser, director of the Brennan Center's Democracy Program, which has closely followed the impacts of some forms of electronic registration in more than a dozen states. "If anything, this system is going to dramatically increase accuracy."

In Schenectady County, Democratic Commissioner Brian Quail and his Republican counterpart, Art Brassard, said they mostly just want more information. "We're not overly anxious to see it ... until it's fully vetted and explained," Brassard said. As to whether electronic signatures would be allowed, Quail added: "It's a systemic issue that needs to be decided by people above our pay grade."

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