Registering Dissent

May 24, 2005 | Tompaine.com |

Election 2004 was supposed to be different. But as many Ohio residents witnessed last November, things haven't quite gone according to plan. Voters continue to be frustrated by the shoddy and inept administration of elections. Problems with voter registration topped the list of complaints received by the massive election protection campaigns mounted last year by a consortium of voting rights organizations.

In the last five years, millions of individuals — in the United States and around the world — have witnessed serious problems with American elections. In state after state, voters showed up at the polls only to find that their names had been left off the voter registration list. Some had submitted voter registration applications that were never processed in time for the election. Many others who had voted in the past were inexplicably purged from the rolls. Then there were the widespread reports of problem after problem with machine breakdowns, ballot shortages, too few poll workers, ballots ending up in the trash, and the list goes on and on. Something is very wrong with our democratic process.

So now, states across the country are racing to meet a January 1 deadline for reforming our election systems — as they should be. The danger is that many may squander this once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Congress has tried to remedy some of the lingering problems that bubbled to the surface, and into the public view, following the 2000 election. They proposed several remedies over the past few years; prominent among them was the computerized, statewide voter registration list that was a key provision of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA). Under HAVA, as of Jan. 1, 2006, each state is required to have in place a fully functional electronic voter registry that would link together each local election board and be able to cross-check voter data with information kept by the Social Security Administration, state departments of motor vehicles and public health, and other agencies. Voters would get up-to-date technology that would avoid the human and systems errors that omit or erase the names of those eligible to cast a ballot, while election officials could more easily flag the names of ineligible or deceased individuals.

The linchpin in the transition to these computerized voter registration lists is the Election Assistance Commission (EAC). Created by Congress in 2003, the EAC would advise states on how to implement HAVA's new federal voting requirements and satisfy voters' expectations of smooth and accurate election administration. The EAC's draft guidance to the states on their development of computerized, statewide voter registration lists, was published in the Federal Register on April 12, 2005. The public is invited to comment on the proposal by 5pm EST tomorrow, May 25, after which final recommendations will be drafted and published in time for states to meet the January 1, 2006 deadline.

Never was there so much to say about so little. The draft "guidance" is most notable for providing little-to-no real advice on how states should go about developing complex new computer systems that can finally fix our broken voter registries. In fact, the core of the EAC document consists of a mere six paragraphs, and does little more than reiterate the very vagaries of HAVA that is was meant to clarify.

It is time for Americans to act now and let the EAC know that well-designed computerized, statewide voter registries are our best hope for accurate voter rolls that will allow eligible voters to cast a ballot that will be counted. With strong leadership and guidance from the EAC, states can build databases with basic voter-protection features such as these:

* Strong safeguards against erroneous purging or modification of voter records;

* Access to information from state and federal databases to supplement and correct voter registration information, and help eligible voters stay on the rolls;

* Real-time updates;

* User-friendly capability that allows voters to check their registration status, polling location, and other relevant information online before Election Day;

* Expansion of registration and voting opportunities by connecting social service agencies and disability services offices to election agencies;

* Access by election officials at each polling place on Election Day, thereby both safeguarding the integrity of election results and facilitating adoption of Election Day Registration; and

* Tough for security measures that prevent unauthorized access to the database, require tracking of all transactions, and preserve the privacy of confidential voter information, such as Social Security numbers.

Thousands more voters will find themselves kicked off the rolls if some glaring systems errors are not compensated for at the outset. Chief among them are the limitations and inaccuracies embedded in the records of the Social Security Administration (SSA). The SSA maintains a vast source of information on tens of millions of American citizens and residents and is a key link in the chain of state and federal databases that will be referenced to verify a voter's eligibility. Come January, elections officials will begin cross-referencing the information a voter provides on her voter registration application against SSA records. Where the data doesn't match, applicants will need to substantiate their eligibility through some other means.

But the SSA database is seriously flawed. Pete Monaghan, Director of Information Exchange and Computer Matching of the Social Security Administration, admitted at a February 2004 national conference of secretaries of state that a voter registrants' name, date of birth or other identifying information may not match data in social security records in as high as 10 percent of instances. The SSA database has more errors in the instance of "foreign" and hyphenated names. It's not hard to imagine mismatches. How many Americans notify Social Security when they marry and adopt their spouse's name?

Any then there's human error. Without strong auditing requirements, data entry mistakes can easily work to keep eligible voters off the rolls. The danger was highlighted in New York City last September. At the time, the New York City Board of Elections forwarded a file of 15,000 voter registration records and driver's license numbers to the state department of motor vehicles, to be cross-checked against the DMV database. Almost 3,000 bounced back. Information provided on these voter registration forms appeared as inaccurate or false. Fortunately, a fair-minded elections commission insisted that staff at the city office double-check their work. That audit revealed that 99.7 percent of the mismatches were traceable to typing errors by election workers inputting voter registration data. Had the city board of elections rejected those voter registrations when they didn't match DMV files, close to 20 percent of this batch of new registrants would have been disfranchised. That is precisely the kind of problem that HAVA was intended to remedy.

Regrettably, many states seem prepared to use the new computerized databases to keep voters off the rolls. At last count, about 20 states reported that they would reject the registration application of a would-be voter in instances where a social security or driver's license number could not be matched against information in a motor vehicle or social security database. In contrast, other states plan to still register such persons, and take further action to verify eligibility, so that no rightful voter will lose the ability to cast their ballot. Such is the patchwork of interpretations and contradictions that define our election administration — voters' rights are compromised based on state lines and partisan views of our federal guidelines.

Voters should expect strong, far-sighted leadership from the EAC. They need to show states the way to fix the voter registration problems and other flaws that taint elections year after year. Pick up the phone, or send an email or fax and tell them just that.

Contact Juliet Thompson, General Counsel to the Election Assistance Commission, at (202) 566-3100, (202) 566-1392 (fax), or guidance@eac.gov. An electronic copy of the draft guidance can be found on the EAC's website at http://www.eac.gov.

Carbo is the director of the Democracy Program at Demos, a national, nonpartisan public policy organization based in New York.