Learning from Virginia about Voter List Maintenance

The Commonwealth of Virginia has been on my mind recently as I have been thinking about voter registration list maintenance. (I know, I have a troubled mind.) Virginia has a very thorough and well-documented “list hygiene” program — which results in an annual report that anyone interested in the topic should read. (Here’s a link to the past four reports.)

Edgargo Cortes, who is the Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections, graciously invited me to share the podium with him today, as he led a training session on list maintenance at the annual Virginia Elections Conference.  Edgardo’s remarks were centered around explaining the following chart, which illustrates the various data sets that come together on the regular basis — ranging from yearly to monthly — as his team tries to ensure that eligible voters, and only eligible voters, are on the Commonwealth’s voting rolls. (Click on the graphic for a slightly larger view.)

Here are some thoughts that initially occurred to me as I listened to Edgardo talk, and as I’ve spent the day talking with him and his staff:

  1. The amount of external data brought in to match against the voter file is stunning. To suggest that a state like Virginia isn’t putting a lot of effort into trying to keep the list current is just nuts.
  2. ERIC (the Election Registration Information Center) has been indispensable for improving the ability of Virginia to find voters who have moved away, and to make sure their voter registration is held in only one place.  Indeed there is evidence (some of which I presented in my remarks) that Virginia has been able to use ERIC to catch up from prior years when a lot of these (former) voters would have remained on the list as deadwood for years.
  3. Database matching is harder than you think.  When I got into this business, there was a common assumption that voter registration lists were the orphan child of government agency record keeping, and that larger agencies (especially DMVs) had crisp and clean lists.  Not true.  Turns out that most government agencies that interact with citizens really don’t need to know precisely where they live.  As a consequence, some data sources are less helpful than you’d think, and in almost all cases, data records don’t easily match-up.
  4. Citizenship matching is a quagmire.  The DHS SAVE (Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements Program) database has been touted as the savior for keeping non-citizens off of voter rolls, but it turns out that if you have the information you need to search for someone on the SAVE service, you already know they are unlikely to be a citizen.  Furthermore, resident aliens transition so regularly into citizenship status that voters tagged as non-citizens almost always end up being citizens after all — a fact discovered only after painstaking auditing of citizenship information.  The quality of the data on citizenship seems ready-made for an endless stream of false-positive matches.

Virginia is a state that takes the accuracy of its voting rolls very seriously.  Check out their reports — or at least study the chart.