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How to Fix Voter Registration

These systems are the gateway to democracy. But in the U.S., registration lists are rife with errors. The answer is online.

In the 1948 Texas Senate primary, nearly 200 “overlooked” ballots marked for Lyndon Johnson were discovered in Alice, Texas. Johnson won the election by a few votes and charges of ballot box stuffing followed him the rest of his political career. Today, things may not be much better. In this year’s New Hampshire primaries, activists requested and received ballots in the name of deceased voters.

Though “vote early and vote often” is a joke, it’s no way to run an election. And dead people shouldn’t vote.

Voter registration rolls are designed to prevent both phenomena and more. But voter registration procedures in the U.S. — from the days of quill and ink — have failed to keep up with our increasingly mobile population, according to Upgrading Voting Registration by the Pew Center on the States.

Election offices have been under severe strain since the 2008 elections. The recession and housing crisis put millions in legal limbo as to homeownership and residence, and the search for employment increased the churn of voters and potential for voter registration list errors. At the same time, budget cuts slashed staffing needed to maintain and update registration lists — a process that the Pew study says costs more than $4 per registered voter in Oregon.

As a result, one in eight names on voter registration lists is incorrect, nearly 2 million deceased individuals are listed as voters, and about 2.75 million people have registrations in more than one state, the study says. In 2008, some 2.2 million voters arrived at the polls and couldn’t vote because of registration glitches. And finally, 25 percent of eligible voters are not on the registration lists for one reason or another and therefore could not vote even if they wanted to.

“Voter registration is the gateway to participating in our democracy, but these antiquated, paper-based systems are plagued with errors and inefficiencies,” said David Becker, director of the study and of election initiatives at the Pew Center on the States. “These problems waste taxpayer dollars, undermine voter confidence, and fuel partisan disputes over the integrity of our elections.”

According to Becker, two solutions could solve many voter registration problems: online voter registration and list matching between jurisdictions.

Online Voter Registration: 3 Cents

Election departments have a fixed number of staff members who are often swamped with voter registration drives shortly before Election Day. “In California, the deadline for registration is 15 days before the election, so they get a ton of paper dropped [on them] about 15 days before the election,” Becker said. “That’s also the time when their other activities are at their peak.” Sometimes tens of thousands of paper forms are received during this time, he said.

But technology — specifically online voter registration — can help manage that paperwork and provide other benefits. While the nation as a whole ranks low on accuracy of registration information, Maricopa County, Ariz., (home to 2 million voters) was praised for its online voter registration system.

Recorder Helen Purcell, who handles elections for Maricopa County, said 75 to 80 percent of voter registrations there are done online. The county implemented online voter registration in 2003, and it cut the cost to register a new voter or update an existing record from 83 cents to 3 cents. Accuracy also improved since every data field must be filled in online.

“They do a remarkably good job of not only running an effective system, but also keeping good data on how well it works,” Becker said,.

To maintain accuracy, Maricopa County continually scrubs its list of registered voters. “We receive a monthly report from the Secretary of State’s Office on people who are deceased, and we go through the obituaries every day,” Purcell said. In addition, party precinct committee members are asked to inform the department if they find that people have died or moved.

The county updates voting rolls by removing felons and individuals who were called for jury duty and claimed that they’re not a citizen, or said they were convicted of a felony. “Sometimes it may be just to get off jury duty, and it’s not the truth,” Purcell said. “We tell them, ‘You have a bigger problem with the judge than you do with us.’”

List Matching: “A Web of Confidence”

In some countries, like Canada, voter registration lists are reconciled at the national level. In the U.S., however, federal law requires that each state have one statewide voter registration list that cities and counties within the state use. But how are the duplicates, deceased voters and errors found and corrected? “That requires us to match data across several different data sources in order to find the best data,” said Becker. “There are attempts to do that now in the states, but often the matching protocols are not very good. So you’re left with a lot of false positives and false negatives.”

False negatives — someone who died or moved but was not spotted — build in inefficiency. False positives — people who were removed from the list who shouldn’t have been — disenfranchise legitimate voters.

“For example, state A says David Becker has a Jan. 1, 1966, birthdate and state B has David Becker with a Jan. 2, 1966, birthdate,” Becker said. “There are four possibilities.” One, he said, is that they’re the same person — state A’s information is correct and state B has a typo. The second option is the exact opposite: State A is a typo and state B is correct. Third is they’re both typos but they are the same person, which is entirely possible. And the fourth option is that these are two different people with the same name. Without additional information, it’s impossible to know which option is the likeliest.

The solution? Becker said it starts with states comparing and matching lists on as many data fields as possible. Currently, eight states — Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and Washington — are doing a pilot project with the help of Pew. Becker described it as a “21st-century data center” in which multiple sources can be compared at once.

“If you get two sources that match on two fields, but you can take one of those sources and match it to a third source — perhaps on two different fields — and then maybe a fourth data source where you can match another set of fields, you gradually form a web of confidence.”

Becker expects that the eight-state matching project will decrease costs and administrative burdens, especially at the county level, where most of the registration processing is completed.

In Maricopa County, matching is done partially by the state and county, Purcell said. “They match a driver’s license number. The name we deal with here — are they giving the full name or a nickname? So you try to match other points, like present and previous address, occupation, mother’s maiden name, etc., that ties them in. So it’s done on both sides. Sometimes the state gives us a soft match, and we have to make sure that match is good before we put them on our rolls.”

Ideally the multistate matching project will show that it’s possible to increase confidence in voter rolls while moving the administrative burden to off-peak time.

Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.