Deja vu? The National Academies of Science voter registration databases research

Over the past few months, I’ve had this strange sense of deja vu, with all of the news about potential attacks on state voter registration databases, and more recently the questions that have been asked about the security and integrity of state voter registries.

Why? Because many of the questions that are being asked these days about the integrity of US voter registration databases (in particular, by the “Presidential Commission on Election Integrity” (or “Pence commission”), have already been examined in the National Academies of Science (NAS) 2010 study of voter registration databases.

The integrity of state voter registries was exhaustively studied back in 2010, when I was a member of this NAS panel studying how to improve voter registries. In 2010 our panel issued it’s final report, “Improving State Voter Registration Databases”.

I’d call upon the members of the “Pence commission” to read this report prior to their first meeting next week.

I think that if the commission members read this report, they will find that many of the questions they seem to be asking about the security, reliability, accuracy, and integrity of statewide voter registration databases were studied by the NAS panel back in 2010.

The NAS committee had a all-star roster. It had world-renown experts on computer security, databases, record linkage and matching, and election administration; it also included a wide range of election administrators. The committee met frequently with a wide range of additional experts, consulted with a wide range of research, and produced the comprehensive report in 2010 on the technical considerations for voter registries (see Chapter 3 of the report, “Technical Considerations for Voter Registration Databases”). The committee also produced a series of short-term and long-term recommendations for improvement of state registries (Chapters 5 and 6 of the report).

At this point in time, the long-term recommendations from the NAS report bear repeating.

  • Provide funding to support operations, maintenance, and upgrades.
  • Improve data collection and entry.
  • Improve matching procedures.
  • Improve privacy, security, and backup.
  • Improve database interoperability.

As we look towards the 2018 election cycle, my assessment is that scholars and election administrators need to turn their attention to studying matching procedures, improving interoperability, and how to make these datafiles both more secure and more private. States need to provide the necessary funding for this research, and for these improvements. I’d love to see the “Pence commission” engage in a serious discussion of how to improve funding for research and technical improvements of voter registration systems.

So my reaction to the recent requests from the “Pence commission” is that there’s really no need to request detailed state registration and voter information from the states; the basic research on the strengths and weaknesses of state voter registries has been done. Just read the 2010 NAS report, you’ll learn all you need to know about the integrity of state voter registries and steps that are still needed to improve their security, reliability, and accuracy.