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Computerized Voter Registration Databases Need a Major Overhaul

Political scientist Thad Hall says federal standards are required to prevent state electronic registration databases from disenfranchising people.

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.

Voters can get purged from the rolls because there are no federal electronic standards for maintaining registration databases. (Credit: Getty Images)

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.

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.

TR: This year, the Kentucky State Board of Elections attempted to purge voters based on a voter registration comparison with Tennessee and South Carolina. What happened?

TH: There are a very small number of states, primarily in the South, who have historically collected social-security numbers when they collect election data. They have a nine-digit SSN for each voter, which you’d think would be a unique identifier. The three states pulled their voter registration databases into a common format like Excel, and then they matched [them up]. First they tried to match on the SSN, but they didn’t work very well for two reasons. One is, there are data entry issues–people mis-entered the SSNs. Secondly, some people reported themselves as, for example, “Mrs. Bob Smith” instead of “Margaret Smith,” and when they did that, they also used their husband’s SSN. You’d get matches on two people having the same SSN, but different genders.

They were able to identify people who were registered to vote in multiple states. The question became, legally, what could you do about this? The State of Kentucky was sued successfully by its attorney general, who argued that you have to follow the rules of the National Voter Registration Act to purge somebody off your list. You can’t just purge people off, you have to send notice.

TR: Given that states and precincts, not the federal government, traditionally had the primary responsibility to run and regulate elections in the United States, how optimistic are you about the chances of federal adoption of electronic standards?

TH: The problem that you run into about any kind of federal standards is that the Help America Vote Act explicitly does not give the Election Assistance Commission [the four-year-old national clearinghouse for federal elections] the power to enforce federal standards. Any standard could be made voluntary by the commission, but for it to have any force of law it’d have to be enacted by Congress, and I don’t think they’re going to open that can of worms any time soon.

But I think we will see a demand for some kind of federal support for the states for both voting technology and voter registration. This will occur because there will continue to be election administration issues and demands for these technologies. I think what we’re going to see is pressure for more funding to address these issues, and when that occurs there will be pressure to create federal standards. People will demand voting systems that are highly secure and meet certain standards for functionality and interoperability.

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