office, which very often doesn't want to be involved in keyboarding individual voter registrations and wants to leave that in the hands of local elections officials," Chapin said.
The federal legislation could upset this balancing act by putting more power in the hands of state elections officials.
"The federal legislation looks like it's going to put state officials in the catbird seat on implementation, and the extent to which state officials are able [to] actually either persuade or force local elections officials to go along will go a long way toward the success or failure of the reforms that will be enacted in the federal law," he said.
At Opposite Ends of the Spectrum
The statewide voter-registration database proposed by the federal legislation is based on the system implemented in Michigan.
Michigan's voter-registration system could be considered a centralized database model, meaning state elections officials perform all data entry and purging of duplicate records, said Chris Thomas, Michigan's elections director. The state is ultimately responsible for ensuring that voters who appear in the voter-registration database actually belong in the database.
"We have a benefit that most states don't," he said. "The secretary of state is in charge of the Department of Motor Vehicles and elections. We're all in the same agency."
Michigan's system does give local elections officials easy access to voting files for their jurisdictions, Thomas said.
At the other end of the spectrum is North Carolina. The state recently implemented a registration system that uses the decentralized database model, meaning county elections officials enter voter information. The data is automatically posted to a central database used by North Carolina's Statewide Election Information Management System (SEIMS). North Carolina counties use the same computer system and software to enter voter information into the SEIMS database.
According to the final election-reform bill, "each state, acting through the chief elections official, shall implement, in a uniform and nondiscriminatory manner, a single, uniform, offical, centralized, interactive, computerized, statewide voter registration list; defined, maintained, and administered at the state level."
With this definition, it's not clear that North Carolina's SEIMS would match federal intent.
Not Out of the Woods Yet
The word "centralized" is key, said Leslie Reynolds, executive director of the National Association of Secretaries of State, because that indicates control from the state level.
Still there is another x-factor.
"The reality is because there's no agency to do any rule-making, it's going to be the interpretation of the states," Reynolds said, noting that it might still be possible for states to make the argument that an accessible-compilation database meets the federal mandates.
"I honestly don't know; in the process of talking to staff that worked on this legislation, I know they used all the adjectives to cover every basis so that couldn't be done," she said. "I know that there are some states that are hopping mad about the concept of a centralized, statewide voter-registration database because it is currently maintained at the county level."
Now that Congress has passed the legislation, the issue of money still looms, she said.
"What's been authorized still hasn't been appropriated, and we don't know when the appropriation process is going to happen," she said. "There have only been two appropriations bills that have passed, and none of them have our stuff in them. The appropriations bills probably won't be addressed until either a lame-duck session after the November elections or sometime early next year."
Control is very much a live issue, said Electionline.org's Chapin.
"Michigan is sort of the poster child, and the House bill is saying, 'We think everybody's system should look like Michigan's.' In talking to state officials, they're concerned that, because of the pushback from local officials, the Michigan system might be ideal, but it might not be achievable."
"Many states, either by the necessity to get the projects started or by design, are going forward with essentially souped-up, accessible compilation databases and hoping that they'll be able to persuade the federal government that that meets the intent," he said. "When it comes to designing these databases, everybody agrees that we need to build a statewide database. But then when they all sit down around the table, and the state or the vendor has to sell the project to the local officials the give and take on how the systen will develop and how the project will move forward is fascinating."