Public Assistance Databases and Automatic Voter Registration

Public Assistance Databases and Automatic Voter Registration

February 5, 2010
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A central goal of any automatic voter registration proposal should be a representative electorate in which all eligible citizens, including those from historically underrepresented communities, are effectively registered and able to cast a ballot on Election Day. State databases of individuals receiving public assistance benefits--including SNAP (formerly Food Stamps), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), and Medicaid--can be an important source for registering low-income citizens--one of the most under-registered segments of the population.

To better understand the nature of public assistance agencies' computerized eligibility databases and their ability to facilitate automatic voter registration, Demos conducted telephone interviews with public assistance agencies in 41 out of 51 states (including the District of Columbia).

TOP FACTS:

  • Public assistance agencies are generally well-positioned for voter registra­tion modernization. Much of the information necessary for registering individuals to vote is be­ing captured, maintained, and updated in agency databases. Nevertheless, some states will be re­quired to adjust their systems or alter their procedures in order to capture and seamlessly transmit the necessary data in the most voter-protective way.
  • The majority of the information required to register to vote—full name, date of birth, and So­cial Security number —is collected and stored for every household member receiving benefits in virtually all public assistance databases. Citizenship status must be provided by all applicants for SNAP, TANF, and Medicaid and is a required field in the vast majority of databases we surveyed. While some states are able to upload a digital image of an applicant’s signature, many others do not currently have this capability.
  • All public assistance records require entry of first and last name for every client in the database. However, not all states require a “formal legal name.” Some states will instead allow the use of nicknames or aliases (e.g., Ted rather than Edward). Special attention will need to be paid in at­tempting to identify duplicates and to ensure that no eligible voter is kept off the rolls or prevented from voting because they prefer to use a nickname.
  • Some states reported that they do not require all clients to provide a residential address, allowing a mailing address to be used instead. This is a potential problem as all states require a residential address for voter registration. All states surveyed with the exception of two, however, have a field for residential addresses in their database, even if not required.
  • While some states use USPS-certified software to standardize and improve the accuracy of the addresses in their databases, others do not, potentially complicating the already difficult processes of eliminating duplicate registrations and maintaining accurate voter lists.