Voting Smart

North Carolina election information system cleans up voter rolls.

by / September 26, 2002
No more dead people on the voter rolls in North Carolina. And no more voters registered in more than one county. Thanks to a new Statewide Election Information Management System (SEIMS), North Carolina has single, consistent and up-to-date registration of legal voters for 94 of its 100 counties. As more funding from the government becomes available, the new technology aims to cover all counties in the state, which is expected to occur in the next year.

To accomplish this feat, the state Legislature passed a law establishing a central database for voter records, invested $10-million for design and implementation of the database, and mandated that counties input registration information into the new system.

The state has not had serious problems with election fraud, but because counties conduct voter registration independently - and often manually - mistakes are bound to occur, said Bob Rauf, director of information technology at North Carolina's State Board of Elections.

The state's 100 counties still continue conducting voter registration, including the verification of voters' addresses, voter history, the mailing of absentee ballots, the administration of polling places and the reporting and recording of election results. But with the introduction of SEIMS application, they use a centralized computer system and software to share voter information, as well as campaign finance data for candidates running in local or state elections. County employees simply enter voter registration information into their workstations and the data is automatically entered into the state's central database.

The central data repository lessens the chance of voters being registered in more than one county at the same time. Multiple registrations can occur when citizens relocate to new counties and register to vote there without removing their names from the voter roles for their previous addresses, Rauf said. "We notify the counties where voters' names should be removed because they have moved."

SEIMS also notifies counties when one of their registered voters dies in another part of the state. "We get electronic records from the state Department of Health and Human Services, which records deaths in the state," Rauf said. Furthermore, SEIMS is linked to North Carolina's division of motor vehicles, allowing the state to comply with a federal law that lets citizens register to vote when they get a driver's license.

In the future, Rauf intends to link SEIMS to the North Carolina Department of Corrections, allowing the system to match felony records with voter registrants. The state prohibits felons from voting, a restriction that affects several thousand North Carolina residents, Rauf said. SEIMS would restore citizens' voting rights after their felony status is removed.

"Even if it doesn't happen very often, you can be very exposed to criticism if somebody looked and said, 'Oh, here is an election won by one vote and we think this person was a felon that voted,'" he said.

Use of electronic signatures is being considered for the system down the road, Rauf added, although in North Carolina voters neither sign anything nor show identification in order to cast a ballot.

Rauf and his staff, with assistance from local individual consultants, developed SEIMS internally over a six-month period. "The state did initially try to do some things with a vendor who claimed they had a product, but it never got off the ground," he said. All technology is Microsoft based, including NT servers, the Windows operating system and Sequel Server database software. Changes made on the voters roll in one county database also automatically appear on the statewide rolls in the central database on SEIMS using a replication function.

In 1999, when its voter registration system was formally launched, North Carolina was a leader among the states in this type of application. "It may not be anymore, but at the time it was," Rauf said.

Local Resistance
North Carolina counties, accustomed to operating autonomously, wanted no part of the new registration system at first, Rauf said. "Some of it was resistance to doing anything with the state as opposed to being county-run. There was a little bit of a feeling that we were stepping on their territory."

Treating their officials like commercial customers and allowing free access to the SEIMS software, database hardware and wide area network is what got the counties on board. "We would go out to the county people and demonstrate things," he explained. Eventually, each county will have its own server containing local voter information that is connected to the state's central server in Raleigh.

"The other thing we did fairly early was to set up an advisory board with county representatives from different geographic areas in the state. A group from the counties described in detail what we should be doing. That made it a lot easier for them to move along with us," Rauf said.

Like many such projects, the IT specialists knew nothing about the mechanics of voter registration. And county election people had little previous experience with computers. Rauf also found that many directors or employees at local board of election offices were nervous about technology.

But resistance evaporated through training, particularly as word spread among counties that the solution was working and worth trying out.

Additionally, implementing SEIMS did not result in layoffs for election employees. "It definitely did not cut people out," Rauf said. "But it did let them really focus on doing what their job should have been all along. So some parts of their work became a lot easier."

This was true both for larger counties, which may have 10 to 20 staff members involved in voter registration, and smaller, poorer jurisdictions, which may have a single individual performing this task.

Integration Issues
Rolling out SEIMS presented some technical challenges. For larger counties that could afford their own IT infrastructure, state and county IT specialists had to negotiate the merging of their respective systems under one roof.

"We had rules within the state about our firewalls and what we could let through. And each county would have rules about what they would let through," Rauf said.

From Rauf's perspective, another time-consuming task was the development of a standard interface that would work with the various models of voting machines used by counties. These interfaces were needed to collect election results for the central database. Depending upon individual county budgets, some machines are older than others. Transferring data from one type of equipment into something else "was probably one of the harder things to get the counties to learn how to do," Rauf said.

From a technical perspective, the lack of standardization among county voting machines presented little difficulty. Nevertheless, Rauf has urged localities to scrap older-model voting equipment - a component in the current federal election reform legislation. The legislation also calls for all states to share their centralized voter-registration records through a standard electronic interface, although Rauf does not expect a nationwide database of voters will soon be realized.

Even negotiating a common interface with the IT departments of North Carolina's five neighboring states would be very complex, Rauf said. "We would have trouble doing that with only two IT people here."

SEIMS was introduced on a staged basis starting with 10 counties before the 1999 local elections. The process was carefully watched and changes were made to the system. Nearly 40 counties were involved for the 2000 presidential election.

"We used their experience for input and changed things again," Rauf said. "So by the time we had [the current] 94 counties using the system, the system was working pretty well."

In fact, the biggest challenge of all, he said, was making SEIMS match the state and county election laws. "Turning law, which is sometimes very imprecise, into something that is a computer program can be interesting."
Paul Weinberg Contributing Writer
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