1
The Context for Voter Registration

Voter registration plays a central role in U.S. elections. Today, every state except North Dakota1 operates 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.”2 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 and completeness of the registration lists. In addition, the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993 establishes rules under which names may be removed from voter registration lists.

As a registration deadline nears, the processing of voter registration applications can present enormous logistical problems. The reason is the sheer volume of voter registration records that need processing (either new voter registration applications or updates of information for already-registered voters)—and especially in a presidential election year, this volume can be a substantial percentage of the entire voter registration database. Most of these documents typically arrive within a few weeks of a registration deadline and, depending on the registration cutoff in a particular state, that can require around-the-clock data entry up to the last minute so that pollbooks can be printed. In some instances, there have been outstanding documents to be processed even on Election Day, and staff were needed to manage inquiries from polling places from a physical file of registration forms not yet entered into the VRD. Adding to the complexity of the data entry process is the fact that election officials may receive a multiplicity of different unstandardized forms, in the mail, over the Internet, from other state agencies, in person, and of course from third-party groups.

1

North Dakota does not formally require voter registration as a condition of voting and was exempted from certain provisions of HAVA. For more background information, see www.nd.gov/sos/forms/pdf/votereg.pdf. On the other hand, North Dakota maintains a “central voter file,” which contains most of the information that the VRD systems of other states contain, including the voter’s complete legal name, complete residential address, complete mailing address, a unique identifier for the individual generated and assigned by the state, and the voting history for the last 4 years. North Dakota’s central voter file is used for purposes of “preventing and determining voter fraud, making changes and updates, and generating information, including pollbooks, reports, inquiries, forms, and voter lists.” (Chapter 16.1-02, North Dakota Code, available at http://www.legis.nd.gov/cencode/t161c02.pdf.) Thus, many of the issues described in this report regarding VRDs are also likely to be found in North Dakota.

2

Section 303(a)(1)(A) of HAVA.



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1 The Context for Voter Registration Voter registration plays a central role in U.S. elections. Today, every state except North Dakota1 oper- ates 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.”2 Each state’s database must contain the name and registration informa - tion 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 and completeness of the registration lists. In addition, the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993 establishes rules under which names may be removed from voter registration lists. As a registration deadline nears, the processing of voter registration applications can present enormous logistical problems. The reason is the sheer volume of voter registration records that need processing (either new voter registration applications or updates of information for already-registered voters)—and especially in a presidential election year, this volume can be a substantial percentage of the entire voter registration database. Most of these documents typically arrive within a few weeks of a registration deadline and, depending on the registration cutoff in a particular state, that can require around-the-clock data entry up to the last minute so that pollbooks can be printed. In some instances, there have been outstanding documents to be processed even on Election Day, and staff were needed to manage inquiries from polling places from a physical file of registration forms not yet entered into the VRD. Adding to the complexity of the data entry process is the fact that election officials may receive a multiplicity of different unstandardized forms, in the mail, over the Internet, from other state agencies, in person, and of course from third-party groups. 1 North Dakota does not formally require voter registration as a condition of voting and was exempted from certain provisions of HAVA. For more background information, see www.nd.gov/sos/forms/pdf/votereg.pdf. On the other hand, North Dakota maintains a “central voter file,” which contains most of the information that the VRD systems of other states contain, including the voter’s complete legal name, complete residential address, complete mailing address, a unique identifier for the individual gener- ated and assigned by the state, and the voting history for the last 4 years. North Dakota’s central voter file is used for purposes of “preventing and determining voter fraud, making changes and updates, and generating information, including pollbooks, reports, inquiries, forms, and voter lists.” (Chapter 16.1-02, North Dakota Code, available at http://www.legis.nd.gov/cencode/t161c02. pdf.) Thus, many of the issues described in this report regarding VRDs are also likely to be found in North Dakota. 2 Section 303(a)(1)(A) of HAVA. 

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 IMPROVING STATE VOTER REGISTRATION DATABASES Many of the challenges discussed in this report that are faced by election officials in developing effective voter registration databases are ultimately rooted in the fact that election administration is largely a state matter in which the procedures and regulations governing the electoral process for voters are virtually guaranteed to be different from state to state. Whether it is desirable for greater uniformity among states regarding policies and procedures governing election administration is a controversial policy question. Advocates of greater uniformity sometimes argue that it would be more consistent with equal protection requirements. Greater uniformity might also lead to less confusion among voters who move from state to state. On the other hand, greater uniformity—if imposed externally by the federal government—may be seen as negatively impacting state prerogatives. A more detailed discussion of the background and context for voter registration can be found in Appendix A.