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Government, Politics & Issues
On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

Election Officials Say Online Registration Expanded Voter Rolls For Presidential Primary

Rachel Dalske, of Florissant, votes at the St. Louis County Board Of Elections on Oct. 25, 2018.
File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Election officials in the city of St. Louis and St. Charles County say they've seen a big jump in voter registrations ahead of the March 10 presidential primary.

Election officials in the city of St. Louis and St. Charles County saw a rise in voter registration ahead of the March 10 presidential primary.

A major reason for that spike is the increased popularity of Missouri’s online voter registration system, which is getting a big promotion from popular social media outlets like Facebook, officials said.

Wednesday was the deadline to register for the March 10 primary. St. Louis Republican elections director Gary Stoff said there’s been an “appreciable” increase in registrations compared to 2016. 

Most of the boost, he said, came from the state’s online voter registration service that’s on Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft’s website. Stoff said that in the past week, the city’s seen about 1,800 online and mailed-in registrations.

“And so we're seeing a lot of that now because it's being promoted and advertised through social media, which is a wonderful thing,” Stoff said. “And so folks are taking advantage of that.”

Kurt Bahr, St. Charles elections director, said he’s seen a nearly 159% increase in St. Charles County voter registrations in the first few weeks of 2020 compared to 2016. He, too, cites the increased popularity of online voter registration for the boost.

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Bahr noted that Facebook may be a big driver. Before Wednesday’s deadline, Facebook users would see a link to their state’s online voter registration website whenever they open up their news feed. 

“We’re definitely seeing a massive increase of online with registrations, whereas before people would have to come into the office this time of the year,” Bahr said. “And so I think the issue is people may see a line and they say, ‘I don't want to sit in that line.’ And so maybe that would definitely discourage them to vote, whereas now they can just go online and submit to the applications.”

St. Louis County Democratic elections director Eric Fey said registrations in his county have been fairly consistent compared to 2016. He said there were 735,419 registered voters at the end of January 2016. As of Feb. 12, St. Louis County has 735,431 registered voters.

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“So, an almost identical number,” Fey said.

St. Charles’ boost is notable since it’s a Republican-leaning county. And barring some seismic change, President Donald Trump will be the GOP nominee again. St. Louis is heavily Democratic, and many voters there will likely turn out to cast their ballots since the race will likely be competitive on March 10.

“On the Democrat side, there are lots of viable candidates,” Stoff said. “And sort of the primary, no pun intended, message seems to be, 'Who can defeat Donald Trump?' And so to do that, of course, you have to get a nominee — but then folks need to register and come out to vote.”

Online voting registration is a relatively new phenomenon in Missouri. Secretary of State Jason Kander introduced the service in 2013, and he gives most of the credit to Abe Rakov, who served as the Democratic official’s chief of staff and deputy secretary of state.

In an interview, Ravok said implementing online voter registration was part of Kander’s overall mission to make aspects of the secretary of state’s office as convenient as possible. He said registering online was common sense, especially since everyday activities like paying bills or watching movies migrated to computers.

“We had to figure out a way to comply with state law while also providing the service,” Rakov said, “because the Legislature at the time was pretty hostile to the idea when we brought it to them. So we came up with a way to do it where Missourians could fill out their form online, but actually, our office still processed it. So when people go to the website and fill out the form, it's the equivalent of them coming into our office and filling out the form, and then we take it and send it to their local election authority.”

Rakov said this method of online voter registration was possible because of state statutes making an electronic signature the same as a paper signature. He said that the secretary of state’s office immediately mailed the new registrations to local election authorities.

“And it's the way we had to do and it becomes very hard for the secretary of state's office around the time when there's voter registration deadlines, because then you start getting huge numbers in the office,” Rakov said. “You have to sort it and send to the right local election authority.”

Ashcroft spokeswoman Maura Browning said the secretary of state’s office sends new registrations electronically, divvied up to Missouri’s counties. She said it became electronic during the Kander administration. 

“And so now, somebody registers online and it gets pushed down to each county the next morning,” Fey said. “And you know, everything is processed at the county level electronically.”

For his part, Rakov said he’s heartened that online voter registration has become so popular in Missouri — adding it’s what Kander’s administration wanted to see. He’s encouraging the Legislature to change state law to have someone’s new voter registration go directly to a local election authority.

“We knew that more people would register to vote and update their registration if they had a more convenient way to do it. And we did it because we knew it would be people all over Missouri. It wasn't targeted at Democrats. We knew a bunch of Republicans would use this, too. So it is very exciting to see that the tool is being utilized.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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