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What Americans should be most worried about this November, say elections experts like Thad Hall, a political scientist at the University of Utah, is not that someone might hack the Diebold machine they’re using to vote–but that their names might disappear from the rolls entirely. According to him, the greatest risks of fraud or disenfranchisement concern voter registration.

As Hall spells out in a report for the IBM Center for Business and Government, voter registration databases are difficult to maintain because there are no electronic standards for creating them. That makes it hard for elections officials to compare their databases with motor-vehicle registries and prison records–let alone other states’ elections records.

Earlier this year, the state of Kentucky was sued by its attorney general for attempting to remove 8,000 voters from the rolls–without notifying them–based on a comparison of its database with those in Tennessee and South Carolina, in search of voters registered in multiple states. Hall says that if the state had not been sued, many voters would have been disenfranchised because of database errors.

Until 2002, when Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in response to mistakes made in administering the 2000 presidential election, the federal government had never spent any money on election administration.

Hall, co-author of Point, Click, and Vote: The Future of Internet Voting, explains why Congress should now go further and give the federal government the power to enforce electronic elections standards.

Technology Review: What requirements does the Help America Vote Act set for voter registration databases?

Thad Hall: It just requires there to be statewide voter registration databases. It does not define what such a database is, and it does not provide any standards for certifying these systems or providing for their interoperability. The idea behind it is straightforward: you want states to have common databases so that at least within a state you should be able to know if a person has moved, and you can keep the records within a state accurate. But without common formats it becomes difficult even to do that.

The problem we run into is that there are no standards for the way to format these data. There’s no standard to handle something as simple as a hyphenated last name. What that means is you can’t compare data lists, you can’t transfer data among two databases very easily, because all the record formats are unique. That creates big problems. In California, for example, the Cal Voter File doesn’t accept hyphenated or two-word last names like Benito Del Toro. If the California elections officials try and do a database comparison, or “match,” with the Department of Motor Vehicles in California, his name kicks out because there are no standard data formats.

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