Online voter registration plan on the move in Michigan

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan residents with a valid identification card could register to vote online under advancing legislation backed by Republican Secretary of State Ruth Johnson, who argued the proposal would improve existing processes without jeopardizing security.

The Senate Elections Committee unanimously approved the five-bill package Thursday morning after grilling Johnson on anti-hacking protocols, sending it to the floor for consideration. A House panel debated similar legislation later Thursday but did not immediately vote on the measure.

The online system “would safeguard and add great efficiency to one of the most significant, fundamental rights of Democracy: one citizen, one vote,” Johnson told lawmakers. “This legislation would give me one more tool in my toolbox to improve technology, service and to keep our elections secure.”

The proposal would likely affect a limited number of residents who choose not to register when obtaining a driver’s license or state identification card or only become eligible to vote after doing so. More than 90 percent of eligible Michigan residents are registered to vote, according to the state.

The Secretary of State’s Office would be required to develop an electronic voter registration program that residents could apply through using a driver’s license or identification card. The system would transmit an application to the state’s qualified voter file database, compare ID signatures to those on file and use other authentication measures to ensure an applicant’s identity, including the last four digits of his or her Social Security number.

Will Tyler White of the Michigan Election Reform Alliance urged lawmakers to reject the proposal, suggesting that in-person voter registration on Election Day or automatic registration laws would better serve citizens.

“It’d be a big mistake to expose our voter database to Internet hackers,” White said. “It doesn’t matter how heightened the security is, security can be breached. Computer systems are written by people. They can just as easily be hacked by people.”

Johnson said the online registration system would run through the state’s existing Express SOS software program, which her office said has processed millions of transactions without any known breaches since its launch in 2011.

The state already allows voter registration changes when someone updates their address online, and 38 other states authorize original online voter registration, Johnson said.

The voter database is behind a “firewall” maintained by the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, said Secretary of State spokesman Fred Woodhams. The state is also developing new security measures for the file, including multi-factor authentication requirements for anyone accessing the database, he said.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security in September alerted 21 states that Russian hackers had attempted to breach their election systems in 2016. Illinois was the only state actually breached, and Johnson noted Michigan was not among those targeted.

State Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, pressed Johnson on existing security measures but ultimately voted for the legislation in committee.

“I just think we have to be careful about the creativity of the industry,” Shirkey said of hackers.

Under the proposal, residents with an expired ID would not be allowed to register to vote online, nor would individuals who requested a duplicate ID on the same day or submitted a change of address form within the past 10 days.

An online registrant would be required to vote in person for the first time if they had not previously voted in the state.

Michigan Democrats have proposed multiple online voter registration bills in recent years, including a January 2017 measure introduced by Sen. Steve Bieda of Warren that has languished in committee without a hearing.

The legislation advanced Thursday is sponsored by Sen. Judy Emmons, R-Sheridan, who credited Johnson with helping develop the plan. Rep. Julie Calley, R-Portland, is a lead sponsor on the House package.