Brennan Center Report on Data Base Matching

As some of you know, the reason I have not been blogging recently is that I have been reading state election codes–every state election code actually–as a part of the EAC’s Vote Count and Recount project. One of the thing this project has reinforced is that no two states do elections the same from start to finish. Rules governing simple things, like securing ballots or observing voting in precincts, vary widely from state to state. (I will blog about some of these differences once this project is complete).

The variability I see in election administration in voting also exists in the actual implementation of voter registration, as is evidenced by the recent Brennan Center Report, Making the List: Database Matching and Verification Processes for Voter Registration. The report’s purpose is simple:

Federal law now requires, as of January 1, 2006, that states create and maintain statewide databases to serve as the central source of voter registration information. Citizens’ ability to get on the rolls—and thus their ability to vote and have their votes counted—will now depend on the policies and procedures governing the use of these databases in the voter registration process. Evidence demonstrates that poor policy and procedure choices could result in the unwarranted disenfranchisement of millions of eligible citizens attempting to register to vote. The new statewide databases, and their role in the voter registration process, are poorly understood, but extremely consequential.

This report, issued just as the state databases begin to come online, presents the first comprehensive catalog of the widely varying state database practices governing how (and in some cases, whether) individuals seeking to register will be placed on the voter rolls. The report covers each state’s voter registration process, from the application form up through Election Day—including the intake of registration forms, the manner in which information from the forms may be matched to other government lists, the consequences of the match process, and any opportunity to correct errors. Each variation at each step of the process has tangible consequences for voters seeking to register and vote in 2006 and beyond.

The report is critically important because it illustrates the need for common mechanisms for structuring and sharing data in voter registration databases (to the 2 people who don’t remember, Mike and wrote a report for the IBM Center for the Business of Government about this). It also shows how fragile our election process is in the middle of the reform process. No doubt, most of the potential problems in voter registration will not come to pass, but as we all learned in 2000, it only takes one seemingly small disaster to create a tsunami.