Cleaning up Voter Rolls

California's county voter registrars can't talk to each other, making it too easy to cheat and dragging the elections process down with deadwood.

by / August 31, 1997
"58 in 98" is the campaign slogan for CalVoter, California's first statewide database of voter registration records. CalVoter is coming online in January 1998 to centralize voter records for all 58 counties. Secretary of State Bill Jones is spearheading the project to ensure it meets its scheduled completion date.


Today, California's voter registration records are full of deadwood. There is no easy mechanism in place to crosscheck voter records on a statewide basis, so each of the 58 county voter rolls are islands of information. When voters relocate or die, their registration records are not updated. Leaving inactive names on the rolls significantly increases the cost of elections.

Currently, counties receive timely death information only for residents who die in-county. The counties of residents who die outside the state are only notified once each year. Death records for residents who pass away in a different county may take up to two years to arrive.

Bounty hunters -- who receive per-person fees to register voters -- are another cause of deadwood in the voter rolls. Some unscrupulous ones increase their fees by registering ineligible aliens or obtaining death records and registering the deceased. This practice succeeds because no crosschecking is done and those signed up to vote never complain.


To remedy this, Jones is committed to achieving 100 percent voter participation and a zero-tolerance policy for voter fraud. In 1995, Jones implemented California's first ever elections summit to correct its crumbling voter registration system. The conference revealed each of the state's 58 counties were responsible for their voter rolls, yet none could crosscheck their data. The counties could not consistently identify voters who had either died or moved out of their jurisdictions. The conference produced CalVoter as the solution for cleaning up the state's disconnected voter registration records, reduce voter fraud and cut election expenses.

The CalVoter initiative does not infringe upon county sovereignty. Each county has final control over its voter registration rolls. Changes made by the counties are propagated to the central database in Sacramento. When the central system finds duplicate voters, deaths or other changes, they are returned to the counties as update suggestions. Each county retains full control of its voter files, and can either accept or reject the suggested changes.

Today, counties get some voter registration information from the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). California's Motor-Voter law permits voter registration activities at DMV field offices. When individuals come in for DMV business, they also can register to vote or update their voter information. Every week, DMV mails out nine-track tapes to each of the 58 counties. Larger counties process voter information directly from the tape, while smaller ones work from the included hard copy. When CalVoter goes online, the weekly tape shuffle will be history. The significant costs associated with generating, shipping and processing these tapes also will be retired.

Paying For the Party

Funding for the project came in July 1996 as a loan from the Legislature. The funds will be repaid by the cost savings of trimming deadwood from the voter rolls. Some estimate that nearly 15 percent of the state's 15 million registered voter records are invalid or inactive. Getting rid of those could realize cost savings exceeding $1.5 million for a single election mailing. Savings estimates are based on mailing costs of 75 cents per voter, per election.

Radian International LLC, Computer Resources Group and Amercan Information Systems Inc. won the contract and began work in January 1997. They will use industrial-strength servers, databases and clients. High-end professional products will provide the maximum return on investment for agencies with extended procurement cycles.

Networking 58 counties within 12 months is an ambitious project. The project team made a series of presentations to individual counties, and the retention of sovereignty, cost reductions and increased data integrity were well received.

Fly In The Ointment

CalVoter is a giant step forward, but it is not without its problems. Lawmakers in California have made it illegal to use Social Security numbers to track voter registration records. This severely hampers efforts to maintain accurate voter records. Credit reports, financial records, unemployment insurance, and virtually everything else known about a person is referenced by their Social Security number. Everything except voter registration.

The magnitude of California's voter registration mess is driven home by the continuing fracas in Orange County. When Rep. Bob Dornan lost his seat to Loretta Sanchez in the 46th Congressional District election, he cried voter fraud. Secretary Jones' ensuing investigation turned up voters who were illegally registered. This sparked a sweeping investigation by the Immigration and Naturalization Service into the citizenship of all 1.3 million Orange County voters. Privacy groups protested, and the investigation has since backed down. As a compromise, INS will computer-check approximately 195,000 new voters signed up during registration drives.

Without an efficient, reliable crosschecking mechanism, cleaning the voter rolls is nearly impossible. Two years ago, Secretary Jones pushed through a bill allowing the use of driver's license numbers with voter records. In California, driver's license numbers are the most efficient means of crosschecking voter records. Use of this number is strictly optional, because having a driver's license cannot be a prerequisite for voting. Voters who registered earlier than two years ago do not have their driver's license number associated with their voter registration.

Once online, CalVoter will attempt to integrate the 20 million driver's license records with the 15 million voter registration records. Matching records without using Social Security numbers will be a formidable task.

The project team believes creating name-matching rules in the Oracle database will be the most difficult part of their project. Their programmers must determine how to match Bob Brown, Robert Brown, and Rob E. Brown to the same individual. The big DEC server will have its work cut out for it as it chews through 35 million records.


As it matures, CalVoter will overcome its legislated handicap and provide significant benefits to the voter registration records. California's counties, Department of Motor Vehicles and Department of Health Services are cooperating to make the project a success for all involved.

Although a lot of work is required over a short time, Secretary Jones is no stranger to uphill battles. His previous hard-won successes range from the Food Safety Act of 1988 to authoring California's "Three Strikes" law in 1994. This time, CalVoter is the bear he has by the tail. Considering Jones' track record, the smart money is betting against the bear.

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