By Steven Rosenfeld, originally published at Alternet
Wisconsin students and young voters got a big boost on Tuesday when the state board overseeing elections adopted a policy allowing people registering to vote on Election Day in November to present identifying documents from a laptop or portable digital device.
The unanimous decision by the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board came after more than an hour of mostly supportive testimony from voting rights advocates, such as the state chapter of the League of Women Voters and university students, many of whom described bringing laptops and printers to the polls in previous elections -- only to print documents that were examined and recorded by poll workers, and then discarded.
A handful of local clerks expressed concerns about any change in voting procedures so close to the presidential election, because they are preparing training materials for poll workers. However, the bulk of the testimony suggested that using electronic documents instead of paper was not a big deal.
"If online transactions are acceptable for banking and healthcare, then online or electronic documents should be acceptable for registering to vote," said Andrea Kiminski, Wisconsin League of Women Voters Executive Director. "If all you are doing is displaying a document to the official, and you are not actually submitting it to an official, what difference does it make if the document is printed or not?"
"From personal experience, my T-Mobile bill, the copy of the bill you receive in the mail looks exactly like the copy you get by e-mail," said Alexander Haas, a University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee student. "The same with my WE energy bill. An electronic document is more secure than the paper document, because it is password protected and a [Postal Service] mailbox is not."
The GAB was told by other election integrity advocates that Wisconsin polling place officials had actually set up computers and printers in some polls in recent elections to print out the needed registration documents -- and nobody has complained. To register to vote on Election Day, the poll worker needs to see current proof of one's age, residence and an identifying number, such as a bank account, driver's license or utility bill.
"It has been going on for some time and clerks have been using it for some time," said Ann Jacobs, of Wisconsin Election Protection. "Electronic documents have been used for registration in the past several elections with no issue being raised about it whatsoever."
The GAB looked at the state's election code, which said that new voters must "provide identifying documents." They concluded that the question of 'what is a document' was less dependent on the form it took -- whether paper or on a screen -- than the veracity of the information on it. They also said it would be the would-be voter's responsibility, not election officials, to provide the electronic devices and Internet access.
The advocacy group, One Wisconsin Now, said in a press release that they believe the GAB's board's action is the first of its kind in the nation. "Based on preliminary research, Wisconsin is the only state to formally allow electronic copies of documents to be used to prove residency for voter registration."
Also noteworthy were remarks by GAB Executive Director Kevin Kennedy saying that partisan poll watchers would not be allowed to look at the documents being presented.
"Observers are there to observe the process," he said. "They don't get to do the [poll worker's] job. They don't get to look at the documents. They get to observe if the poll workers do their job, which is to ask for proof of residence, identity, and make proper notation."
In the June gubernatorial recall, Republican election observers interfered with polling place activities in Racine, prompting the GAB to say they would be emphasizing their guidelines for election observers before November. The GAB spokesperson said the board would include Kennedy's concerns in those efforts.