After the dust settled from the controversial 2000 presidential race, election systems across the country gained substantial notoriety as policy-makers began scrutinizing the technology behind voting and the tracking of registered voters.
Former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford headed the National Commission on Federal Election Reform, which was given the task of recommending how to improve the accuracy and fairness of federal elections. From those recommendations came two pieces of election-reform legislation from Congress that, among other things, targeted statewide voter registration systems. In early October, a congressional conference committee resolved the differences between the House and Senate bills, and Congress passed a single election-reform bill. Though the House bill offered very specific language describing the structure of statewide voter-registration systems, the Senate bill didn't, partly leading to the need for a conference committee to hammer out one piece of legislation.
The good news: The wait for a federal decision on statewide voter-registration systems is finally over. The bad news: States still face uncertainty in deciding what Congress actually meant under the provisions of the election-reform bill referring to statewide voter-registration systems.
Some observers doubt that states can create new voter-registration systems in time for the 2004 presidential election. Along with uncertainty over the federal mandate, natural tension between state and local officials often increases the difficulty of transitioning to statewide voter-registration systems.
Redefining the Relationships
"If you look at Florida 2000, that was a snapshot of the existing relationship between state and local election officials," said Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, a project of the University of Richmond, in Virginia. The project, supported by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts, serves as a clearinghouse for information on election reform efforts across the country.
State officials typically have responsibility for elections, he said, which includes tasks such as certifying election results, ensuring compliance with state election laws and coordinating among local jurisdictions. On the other hand, local officials decide how votes are counted, which voting machines are used, where polling places are located and how those polling places are staffed, he said.
"What the federal law is going to do is take some of the authority held by local officials and either legally or functionally shift it to state officials," he said. "State officials are going to not only have responsibility to implement the law, but they're going to have to assume some authority to make those things happen, rather than simply persuade local officials to go along.
"Statewide voter registration databases are going to be a prime example of that," he said.
According to Electionline.org's research, only 13 states have implemented a unified voter registration system (in which states and localities share the same database, and changes are made by local or state officials, or by both) that complies the House election-reform bill - the measure that requires a statewide system that local elections officials can access and use to view the voter lists of other jurisdictions.
"Given the way that elections run in this country, there are lots of states that have the functional equivalent of a statewide database," Chapin said. "It's the difference between a unified database and an accessible compilation database - where everyone has their own database but it's on a common dictionary and they can exchange data between jurisdictions."
Many states, needing to walk a fine line in balancing state and local control of voter data, will point to these "functional equivalents" as proof that they have met federal requirements for statewide voter-registration databases But ultimately, those functional equivalents may not meet the federal mandate, which specifies state control.
"Local election officials want to keep some hand in their own voter rolls, rather than completely turning over control to the state elections