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State Voter Registration Databases: Immediate Actions and Future Improvements - Interim Report Synopsis Voter registration plays a central role in elections in all states except North Dakota. Today, the states operate under a federal mandate (the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002) to develop “a single, uniform, official, centralized, interactive computerized statewide voter registration list defined, maintained, and administered at the state level.”1 Each state’s database must contain the name and registration information of each legally registered voter in the state, and each legally registered voter is assigned a unique identifier. Election officials must perform regular maintenance regarding the accuracy of the registration lists. In addition, the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993 and HAVA establish rules under which names may be removed from voter registration lists. (A voter registration list is the list of names contained in a voter registration database, and the terms are often used interchangeably.) Two basic tasks must be performed for voter registration databases: adding individuals to the voter registration database (VRD) and maintaining the VRD. Adding individuals to the VRD generally requires that the information provided on a first-time voter registration application be verified against the relevant state’s department of motor vehicles database of driver’s license numbers or the Social Security Administration’s database of Social Security numbers. Maintaining the VRD is needed to keep voter registration information current and to remove the names of ineligible voters and duplicate registrations from the voter lists. This task requires comparing records within a VRD to other records in order to identify duplicate registrations (usually associated with changes of address or name) and (by law) comparing VRDs to databases of known felons, deceased individuals, and individuals declared mentally incompetent. In addition, address changes for drivers’ licenses play a major role in updating and maintaining the VRD. Both of these tasks require databases that are accurate and complete, as well as good matching procedures. However, in practice, a variety of practical problems arise such as data entry error. In addition, the matching procedures used by many states have not been subjected to rigorous evaluation or testing. The VRD also drives the preparation of pollbooks (the list of eligible voters in localities for use at polling places). Additional functionality implemented by many states in their (centralized) voter registration systems—including ballot preparation; signature verification for absentee or mail-in ballots; and management of election workers, polling places, petitions, and requirements for disability access under HAVA—assists the local elections official in conducting an election. Given the time frame needed to implement changes that require the modification of computer systems (which involve at a minimum time to design, code, and test changes, and may require new procurements and/or procedures), it is unlikely that any recommendation concerning technology changes could be responsibly implemented in time for the 2008 elections. Moreover, solutions to these technical problems may in some cases also require changes to state election law and/or regulation; they are not 1 Section 303(a)(1)(A) of HAVA.
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State Voter Registration Databases: Immediate Actions and Future Improvements - Interim Report exclusively issues about changing computer systems, but also might require that states alter law, regulation, or practice. Nevertheless, the Committee on State Voter Registration Databases believes that a number of meaningful changes of a nontechnical nature can be implemented in two areas in time to make a difference in the November 2008 election: (1) education and dissemination of information and (2) administrative processes and procedures. In addition, this interim report notes a number of actions that can be taken to support elections in 2010 and beyond, although states may wish to examine these longer-term actions to see if any can be implemented in the few months before the 2008 election. These short-term changes and longer-term actions are directed primarily at election officials (voter registrars) at the state and local/county level. In some cases, the Election Assistance Commission has a useful role to play as well in facilitating and promoting their implementation. SHORT-TERM ACTIONS—PUBLIC EDUCATION AND DISSEMINATION OF INFORMATION Raise public awareness about the legibility and the completeness of voter registration card information. Jurisdictions could take some or all of the following specific steps: Emphasize in the instructions for filling out voter registration forms the importance of legibility and completeness (for example, “Please print all responses; if your answers are illegible, your application may be mis-entered, rejected, or returned to you.”). Conduct media campaigns emphasizing the importance of legibility and completeness in the information provided on voter registration forms. Coordinate with third-party voter registration groups and public service agencies, emphasizing the need for their field volunteers to attend to legibility and completeness as they distribute and/or collect registration materials. SHORT-TERM ACTIONS—ADMINISTRATIVE PROCESSES AND PROCEDURES Resubmit match queries if the response returned from the Social Security Administration or department of motor vehicles is a nonmatch. Provide human review of all computer-indicated removal decisions. Improve the transparency of procedures for adding voters and for list maintenance. Use fill-in online registration forms. Perform empirical testing on the adequacy of processes for adding to and maintenance of lists. Take steps to minimize errors during data entry. Allow selected individuals to suppress address information on public disclosures of voter registration status. Encourage (but do not require) entities sponsoring voter registration drives to submit voter registration forms in a timely manner to reduce massive influxes at the registration deadline.
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State Voter Registration Databases: Immediate Actions and Future Improvements - Interim Report LONG-TERM ACTIONS FOR POSSIBLE FUTURE IMPROVEMENTS Develop and promote public access portals for online checking of voter registration status. Encourage/require departments of motor vehicles as well as public assistance and disability service agencies to provide voter registration information electronically. Encourage/require departments of motor vehicles, public assistance and disability service agencies, tax assessors, and other public service agencies of state and local government in their communications with the public to remind voters to check and update their information. Improve matching procedures. Establish a software repository of tested matching algorithms. Provide voter registration receipts to improve administrative processes. Allow voters to register and to update missing or incorrect registration information online if a signature is already on file with a state agency. Develop procedures for handling disenfranchisement caused by mistaken removals from voter registration lists. Improve the design of voter registration forms.