Under all procedures used for voter registration in the United States today, the prospective voter must take action to register to vote.2 Through such action, the voter provides certain pieces of information that eventually wind up in a voter registration database. If this process could be guaranteed to be error-free, many fewer problems of data quality would exist. But unfortunately, this is not the case.
It is useful to distinguish between three categories of error that may be introduced in the journey of these pieces of information from the voter’s head to the database. Usually, the voter provides handwritten information on a form. The form is transmitted or carried to the voter registrar, where the data are transcribed from the form into machine-readable form, usually by a data-entry clerk who performs this task manually. Once in machine-readable form, the data may then be processed in some minimal fashion before it is stored permanently in the database. All of these steps can result in some kind of error.
A variety of problems complicate the data capture process. For example, data capture efforts are often compromised by:
Illegibility. The information on most voter registration forms is handwritten, and in many cases, the handwriting is difficult to read, entirely illegible, or misunderstood. This makes the act of entering this information more challenging and increases the potential for errors in voter registration records to be entered in the database.
Inaccurate or incomplete voter registration information. Applicants may fill out the forms inaccurately or incompletely if they misunderstand what information is required. Although applicants make such errors in all venues in which they fill out applications, they are more likely to make errors when the venue is crowded, noisy, and chaotic and when those available to help applicants do not have time or are not knowledgeable enough to answer questions about the applications. These conditions are often met during voter registration drives that take place in locations other than election offices—shopping centers, university campuses, and other locations that attract large crowds. In addition, voter registration drives are frequently staffed by volunteers, some of whom may not have sufficient knowledge of process and procedures in collecting voter information; this may be especially true when volunteers are brought in from out of town.
Missing voter registrations. For example, Jim Dickson of the American Association of People with Disabilities testified to the committee that the volume of voter registration applications received from state social service and disability agencies (a service to potential voters that the NVRA directs these agencies to provide) has dropped significantly since the initial implementation of the law in 1995, although the committee notes that the causality of this drop remains unclear—that is, it is unknown whether this drop reflects failures in the social service agencies to meet their legal obligations; a change in the demographics and/or preferences of those applying for social services; problems in conveying completed applications to voter registrars; or some other reason(s).
Repeated (duplicate) registration applications. An individual may submit multiple voter registration applications “just to be sure,” or because s/he may have forgotten that s/he is already registered to vote. Although voter registrars are supposed to have mechanisms in place to screen duplicate registrations, the screening process does not always work smoothly, and sometimes the same individual may be registered more than once.
Inconsistencies in submitted information. In filling out forms, individuals are often unintentionally inconsistent in the information they provide, especially if a period of time has elapsed between multiple form-fillings (either across registrations or between registrations and other activities such as applying for a driver’s license or an SSN). An individual may use a nickname in one case and the full legal name in another, or include a middle initial in one and omit it in another. Such inconsistencies may arise because of a lack of clarity in the instructions given to the individual about what specific information to