TR: Why do voter registration databases need to be compatible with other records within and between states?
TH: First of all, within a state, one of the things you want to be able to do is make sure the records in your voter registration database are up to date. Because the most common way of registering to vote is through the state department of motor vehicles, if you could transfer that data electronically, you would only have one data entry point. People proof[read] their drivers’ licenses, so you would know that the data in that file is accurate. If they could transfer that data directly, it would be a whole lot easier.
You can also consider cross-state matches. A number of people registered to vote in California, for example, are considered to be inactive, likely because they’ve moved to another state. California has a very high mobility rate. You want the ability for two states to match records so they can keep their databases up to date. You can’t do these matches very easily, because it’s difficult to match their names. You want to match on a number of factors, but if you don’t have a common format for how to handle simple things like names and addresses, it becomes very complicated to match people. You have to have a widget to take the data from format A to format B, and that’s costly and difficult.
Unfortunately, matching is not something that’s happening in real time, it’s just a one-time thing. What you want is something much more dynamic, so that when that person registered to vote they could immediately ask that person when they move from Kentucky to Tennessee, “Were you registered in your previous state?” Then they could transfer the information from Tennessee to Kentucky: “Bob Smith has moved here; take him off your list.” If a person gives affirmative acknowledgement, you can delete them off the list.
TR: Are there any groups working to establish electronic data standards for elections?
TH: Standard-setting is generally done by NGOs [nongovernmental organizations]. The two that are working on election standards are Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) and Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). What these standards do is define fields and provide a uniform mechanism for addressing difficult issues of defining election terms and formats–how would you break up an address, for example.
TR: Beyond voter registration, what are other problems caused by a lack of electronic standards for elections?
TH: It doesn’t allow for interoperability of voting systems. Imagine you’re a county elections official and you want to buy a voting system. You like the machines that one company has, but you don’t like their tabulation or ballot-design software. And another company has terrible machines but they have great software. As an election official you can’t mix and match those, there’s no plug-and-play. It would be like if you couldn’t buy a Dell computer with an HP printer–you’d have to buy a Dell computer and a Dell printer, or an HP computer and an HP printer. Because these things are proprietary and they don’t have interoperability, it puts election officials in a position of being very dependent upon vendors. You don’t want election officials to be totally at the mercy of vendors.
The other thing data standards would make people do is really define what they’re talking about when they’re talking about election reform. You run into these situations where people don’t define basic things–like what it means to be an early voter or an absentee voter–in the same way. That creates big problems.