Voter registration databases — standards for street addresses?

Anyone who has worked with real voter registration databases, voter history files, absentee voter files — or any sort of database that has street address information for voters — knows that working with street addresses can be messy and complicated. Streets have names, and sometimes they have typographical errors in them; sometimes numbered streets will be identified by number, sometimes by character strings (“7th Street” can sometimes be “Seventh Street”); there are apartment numbers and fractional street address numbers; and then there are lots of descriptive elements used for street addresses, that take different forms (“North” or “N”, “Drive” or “Dr”, etc.). These complexities make it difficult to use this data an any particular voter file, and certainly are going to cause headaches when folks start to try to compare data in new statewide voter registration files relative to other government databases (Department of Moter Vehicle files, for example).

An organization possibly unfamiliar to those in the elections arena ( the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association [URISA]) has initiated the development of draft street address data standards. These standards, while not being formulated for election administration, are of interest to those of use who are concerned about the need for election data transactions standards. The URISA documentation for their draft standards justifies the need as follows:

Street addresses are the location identifiers most widely-used by state and local government and the public. Street addresses are critical information for administrative, emergency response, research, marketing, mapping, GIS, routing and navigation, and many other purposes. Because they have evolved over many decades, under the control of thousands of local jurisdictions, in many different record and database formats, and to serve many purposes, different address formats and types pose a number of complex geoprocessing and modeling issues. As a consequence, government agencies struggle with these issues as they seek to integrate large, mission-critical files into master address repositories.”

Sound familiar?

We have only just begun to review the URISA draft standards, which are available for public comment until October 3, 2005. Like most folks in the elections area, our attention has been on the Voluntary Voting System Guidelines, which are also open for public comment until September 30. But based on our initial read, the URISA street address standards seem like a very good idea, and should be reviewed carefully by those thinking about election data transactions standards. There are points of overlap here between the URISA draft standards and what others are doing in this space, but specifically on elections:

Having street address standards clearly are necessary to implement the type of data transaction standards we recently proposed in our report, “The Next Big Election Challenge.” Standards for statewide voter registration databases are likely to be a hot topic in the near future, as more and more states come on line with their new systems, and the URISA approach to develop standards for street addresses might be helpful for those thinking about voter registration or general data transaction standards.