Waiting for Direction

A congressional mandate for centralized, uniform voter-registration systems may create more questions for states.

by / October 31, 2002
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 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."