Editorial: California's looming electoral nightmare

California’s Looming Electoral Nightmare

R. Michael Alvarez and Thad E. Hall

As we enter the 2006 election year, the media continues to focus on the travails associated with electronic voting equipment. But below the surface is a greater threat that has received little attention—the transition to statewide voter registration systems.

As a result, unless steps are taken now, tens of thousands of people may try to vote this spring in states like California, only to find that their names are not on the rolls and they cannot get a ballot.

California is currently the poster child for a poorly-functioning statewide voter registry. Recent reports have noted that at least 25% of new registrations and re-registrations filed since January 2006 have been rejected because the information on the application did not match data in other state databases or because critical information was missing.

Rejected applications are sent to the county election official, who must spend precious time and money contacting these people to determine whether they are really eligible to vote. In Los Angeles County, these problems have been particularly acute, where over 40% of applications this year being rejected.

As we get closer to California’s June primary, the problem will just get worse.

In a normal year, county registrars are flooded with absentee ballot requests just before the election, as well as with new registrations. Now they will be flooded with requests, new registrations, as well as rejected registrations. As a result, tens of thousands of rejected voter registration applications may not be processed and these people may be denied the right to vote.

The irony is that these statewide voter registration systems, mandated under the 2002 federal “Help America Vote Act” (HAVA), are supposed to solve problems with voter registration practices, not to create new ones. Statewide files are intended to produce more accurate voter lists and minimize the chances of voter disenfranchisement on Election Day. States developed these new statewide voter registration systems quickly to beat the January 2006 deadline set by HAVA. California modified an existing system to meet the HAVA requirements. Many states, like Colorado and Wisconsin, relied heavily upon corporate vendors to solve the problem, and several of these vendors have come under fire or have been fired.

We hope that these voter registration systems fare better than we expect. To ensure they work effectively, the problems with voter registration systems needs to be addressed head-on now, and in the long-term.

In the short term, given California’s troubled statewide voter registry, we need to insure that qualified voters are not denied the right to cast a ballot in upcoming elections.

First, we need to build some flexibility into the process before the June primary in California. If someone tries to register before the deadline, but their registration application is not processed because of a matching problem or missing information, that person should be entered into the voter rolls and they should be flagged as “provisional.”

If they request an absentee ballot or vote early, they should be allowed to cast a ballot. But they should also get a notice telling them about the problem with their voter registration application and be allowed to submit corrected information with their ballot. Election officials will have plenty of time after the June primary to figure out if they were eligible to vote.

Second, precinct workers throughout the state must be flexible and permissive in the June primary when it comes to voters whose names do not appear on the rolls in their precincts. Voters not on the rolls will vote provisionally. When they complete the information on the provisional ballot envelope, they will have re-registered to vote and provided the local election officials with the information they need to correct the registration. After the election, full-time election officials can verify voter eligibility.

Third, the Secretary of State should stop relying solely on computers to look for problematic voter registration applications. The State should conduct manual matches on rejected applications and try to fix the problems when they can, as many of the problems likely are the result of obvious data entry problems or inadequacies in the state’s system. It should not be the role of the counties to remedy problems that exist at the state level.

In the long term, we need federal standards and certification of statewide voter registries. Today statewide voter registries are being developed and used without any federal supervision, standards, or testing. This makes little sense. Voting equipment used for casting ballots undergoes state and federal testing that follows a set of voluntary federal voting systems standards. Without standards for statewide voter registration systems—not to mention a complete lack of federal standards, testing and certification—it is no wonder that we have voter registration systems that perform poorly.