ALBANY — State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman is giving Suffolk the go-ahead to become the first county in the state to allow online voter registration, in a legal opinion that could have widespread impact on counties and voters across New York.
New York allows voters to register through Department of Motor Vehicles websites, using digital signatures on driver’s licenses and ID cards that are on file.
But Schneiderman’s determination could result in expansion of online registration. In a letter to Suffolk County, his office said counties could register voters through an electronic signature process.
“In sum, we are of the opinion that a registration application can be completed electronically — with an electronically-affixed handwritten signature identifiable as the applicant’s,” Kathryn Sheingold, an assistant solicitor general, wrote to Suffolk County Attorney Dennis Brown.
The signed registration forms also must be printed and mailed to the board of elections.
“Indeed, such electronically-facilitated voter registration is, in our opinion, consistent with the express legislative policy of encouraging the broadest possible voter participation in elections,” Sheingold said.
Schneiderman aides say the opinion is nonbinding but could jump-start a move to implement online voter registration around the state. The office is “ exploring convening civic and technology organizations to develop mobile and online applications that would be able to host a voter registration form that could be fully completed online,” the aides said.
Twenty-nine states including New York have some form of electronic sign-up, officials said.
“At a time in New York where our citizens experience too many barriers to participation, I am gratified that this opinion invites a new era of truly online voter registration ... ,” Schneiderman said in a statement. “I encourage civic and technology groups to develop an online registration system that can bring our electoral process into the 21st century.”
Suffolk County had written to Schneiderman in February asking if state law permits online voter registration, “particularly with regard to whether the signature component must be handwritten.” Brown noted that online registrations through the state DMV allow the use of electronic signatures.
Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone said, “Incorporating a digital and mobile component would not only be more convenient for many prospective voters, it would break down one more barrier for those who have disabilities or find it difficult to register in person.”
Bellone spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter said the county executive asked for the attorney general’s opinion to determine if there are ways to expand opportunities for voter registration.
“Now that we have the opinion that online registration is something that can be enacted, we will begin a review about how to begin it for Suffolk County voters,” Baird-Streeter said.
Suffolk election officials say they played no part in initiating the request with Schneiderman’s office.