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Washington State to allow voter registration via Facebook

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Social networks are rife with online polls, but beginning as early as next week, residents of Washington State will have a new way to sign up for the real things, when Washington becomes the first US state to allow citizens to register to vote via Facebook.

"In this age of social media and more people going online for services, this is a natural way to introduce people to online registration and leverage the power of friends on Facebook to get more people registered," Shane Hamlin, Washington's co-director of elections, told the Associated Press.

The state has collaborated with Facebook and Microsoft to build an app that lets voters register from right within the social network. Users will also be able to "like" the app to recommend it to their friends.

Washington – not to be confused with Washington, DC, the US capital – is currently one of only 13 states that allow voters to register online. So far, they have been able to do so via the state-run "My Vote" website, and for the most part it has worked out well.

A 2010 study by the Pew Charitable Trusts found that online voter registration was popular in Washington, with nearly all respondents saying they found the system easy to use and that they would recommend it to others. Furthermore, voters who registered online were more likely to actually vote in elections than those who registered using traditional means.

The problem, the Pew study found, was that most Washington voters simply did not know that web-based registration was possible. In 2010, only 27 per cent of registered Washington voters knew about the online system.

Adding Facebook-based registration as a second online option could help get the word out to many more potential voters, particularly younger ones, though whether they will be able to tear themselves away from FarmVille long enough to cast their ballots remains to be seen.

Anticipating the inevitable question – "What could possibly go wrong?" – Hamlin was quick to emphasize that Zuck & Company are not directly involved in the voter registration process. Although the app does pull users' names and dates of birth from their Facebook accounts, he said, information gathered from the voter registration app will not be shared with the social network.

"You are giving your information to us, not Facebook," Hamlin said. ®

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