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Interim Report THE CONTEXT FOR VOTER REGISTRATION Voter registration plays a central role in elections in most states. Today, every state except North Dakota1 operates under a federal mandate (the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002) to develop âa single, uniform, official, centralized, interactive computerized statewide voter registration list defined, maintained, and administered at the state level.â2 Each stateâs 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 and HAVA establish 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)âand especially in a presidential election year, this volume can be a substantial fraction 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, can mean around-the- clock data entry up to the last minute (that is, on Election Day) so that pollbooks can be printed. In some instances, there have been outstanding documents to be processed even by Election Day, and staff were needed to manage inquiries from polling places from a manual file of registration cards not yet entered. A more detailed discussion of the background and context for voter registration can be found in Appendix A. KEY PROCESSES FOR VOTER REGISTRATION DATABASES It is helpful to consider the two basic information management functions of any voter registration database (VRD): adding individuals to the list and maintaining the list.3 The VRD also drives the preparation of pollbooks (the list of eligible voters in localities for use at polling places). Many states have implemented additional functionality to their (centralized) voter registration systems that assists the local elections official in conducting an election. Such functionality may include ballot preparation, signature verification for absentee or mail-in ballots, management of election workers, polling places, petitions, and requirements for disability access under HAVA. 1 North Dakota does not require voter registration and was exempted from certain provisions of HAVA. For more background information, see http://www.nd.gov/sos/forms/pdf/votereg.pdf. 2 Section 303(a)(1)(A) of HAVA. 3 These two general processesâverifying voter registration information and maintaining voter registration listsâare central to the technical and policy dimensions of voter registration databases. Other processes, not covered in this report, are relevant to other requirements and verification procedures covered under Section 303(b) of HAVA. 4
INTERIM REPORT 5 Posting New Voter Registration Information to a Voter Registration Database In processing a voter registration application form, the first question is whether the applicant is already on the list (e.g., the person may already be on the list but with a different address, or the person may have changed his or her name due to a marriage, divorce, or legal action). Although states handle this process in different ways, one notional way of handling it is that if the person is already in the VRD, the status of the previous registration is changed to âout-of-dateâ and a pointer added to the new registration. The new registration information must then be added to the VRD, just as it must be if the new registrant is not on the list, except that the verification procedures described below are then not relevant. Alternatively, the databaseâs functionality may allow an update of the voterâs registration to reflect the new information regarding address or name. In those instances in which data are entered in a distributed manner throughout the state, checking to see if the applicant is already in the VRD may occur after the applicant has been added as a new registrant. In this case, the new record must be handled as a duplicate of an existing record, each referring to the same person but with different recorded information. If the registrant is not already in the stateâs VRD, the individual must be considered a first-time applicant. (In addition, some states regard a voter as a ânew registrationâ when he or she moves from one jurisdiction to another within the stateâeven if the voter is contained in the statewide VRD, the registration is valid only in the first jurisdiction.) HAVA requires certain procedures for verifying voter registration applications. With some exceptions,4 first-time applicants are required to provide a current and valid driverâs license number (or a state-issued nondriverâs identification) or, lacking one, the last four digits of their Social Security number (SSN).5 Those who register by mail are also required to present identifying information at the polls on Election Day (or with their mail-in ballots if they vote via mail) if their department of motor vehicles (DMV) or Social Security Administration (SSA) information cannot be verified. HAVA requires the state motor vehicle agencies and the SSA to enter into agreements with states to verify voter registration information. Currently, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators and the Social Security Administration are using the first name, last name, month and year of birth, and last four digits of the SSN (SSN4) for the verification process. Under these agreements, the applicantâs information can be verified against the information on file with the DMV or the SSA. In the case of a nonmatch (for example, the applicant cannot be found in the DMV or SSA databases), HAVA and other relevant federal laws provide little guidance or direction to the states about what to do next (with one exception6). Although in most states the voter registrar will make an attempt to contact the applicant so that he or she can provide additional information, there is variation in how the states manage the nonmatch, some of which is the subject of current legal challenges.7 4 See HAVA Section 303(b) for the exceptions for individuals who register or vote by mail, are entitled to vote by absentee ballot under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act, or are provided the right to vote under the Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act. 5 If the applicant has neither a driverâs license nor an SSN, the jurisdiction is required to provide the applicant with a unique voter identifying number. 6 See HAVA Section 303(b). In the event that an individual registers to vote by mail without providing a copy of a current and valid driverâs license or other appropriate form of identification with the application, and his or her information cannot be verified (matched) against the DMV or SSA databases, HAVA requires this individual to present appropriate identification at the polling place on Election Day. 7 For example, in a case being litigated as this report is written, a Washington state law is being challenged that requires a nonmatch to result in an applicant not being registered. See Washington Association of Churches v. Reed, No. C06-0726RSM, 2006 WL 4604854, available at http://projectvote.org/fileadmin/ProjectVote/Legal_ Documents/WAC__PI_Decision.pdf.
6 STATE VOTER REGISTRATION DATABASES: IMMEDIATE ACTIONS AND FUTURE IMPROVEMENTS List Maintenance A second important function of a VRD system is to maintain the list of eligible voters, that is, to keep voter registration information current and to remove the names of ineligible voters and duplicate registrations from the voter lists. Jurisdictions must perform periodic list maintenance in accordance with provisions of the NVRA.8 Section 8 of the NVRA requires states to conduct a âgeneral program that makes a reasonable effort to remove the names of ineligible votersâ at voter request or as a result of a felony conviction (presuming that state law directs removal of felons from voter registration lists), mental incompetence, death, or change of residence outside the jurisdiction that holds the voterâs registration. The NVRA requires that any program of systematic removal of names of ineligible voters must be completed not less than 90 days prior to a federal election. This time limit does not apply to removals due to death, felony conviction, or judgment of mental incompetence, which may occur within 90 days of an election. Neither HAVA nor the NVRA requires advance notification of removal from the registration list except in the case of change of residence outside the previous jurisdiction. Felony Convictions, Death, and Mental Incompetence HAVA calls for coordination of state VRDs with state death and felony databases in accordance with state law. The Election Assistance Commission (EAC) recommends that states also coordinate with relevant federal databases, Social Security Death Index databases, and criminal conviction records from U.S. attorneys and federal courts. The use of multiple databases is helpful to overcome gaps in or omissions of data from external state files.9 However, HAVA does not specify how the coordination with other state agenciesâ databases is to take place and lacks specific guidance on standards or methods for removal of ineligible voters from the databases for these reasons. Note also that state law governs state policy regarding the relationship between voting eligibility and status as a felon. In some states, convicted felons are never permitted to vote after their conviction; in other states, the right to vote is reinstated automatically upon the end of the individualâs sentence; in still other states, the individual must apply for reinstatement after the end of his or her sentence or at a state- specified time afterward. Changes of Residence The NVRA requires states to establish a program to use information supplied by the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) to identify registrants whose address may have changed; today, about 14 percent of the population changes an address every year.10 Identifying voters who have moved is usually based on periodic mailings that registrars send to all voters in the jurisdiction by U.S. mail, indicating on the envelope âdo not forward but rather return to sender.â Notices that are returned to the registrar are an indication that the voter may have moved. The USPS does not automatically notify voter registrars of an individualâs change of address. To use the USPS to check an individualâs status, the voter registrar must initiate a query to the USPS with a 8 See 42 U.S.C. 1973gg et seq., including Subsections (a)(4), (c)(2), (d), and (e) of Section 8 of that act (42 U.S.C. 1973gg-6). 9 For instance, if a resident of Missouri dies in California, the death is recorded in California and notification may or may not be sent to Missouri in a timely manner, or ever. 10 See U.S. Census Bureau, Geographical Mobility: 2006. Highlights from this series are available at http://www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/releases/archives/mobility_of_the_population/010755.html, and detailed tables are available at http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/migrate.html.
INTERIM REPORT 7 list of names to see if anyone on the list has moved or submitted a change-of-address form. If so, the USPS will return to the voter registrar the new address for the relevant individuals if the query is made within the forwarding period. Queries made after that point indicate that the new address is unavailable. In addition, a voter registrar could, in principle, also check the entire VRD against the USPS National Change of Address (NCOA) database11 to catch any additional missed moves,12 although the actual utility and practicality of such a check may vary depending on the jurisdiction involved. The NVRA requires election officials to notify the voter if they receive an indication that the voter has moved. In particular, when a change of address is received from the USPS process, the registrar must send a confirmation card to the voter. If the voter remains within the jurisdiction of the registrar, no further action is needed. However, if the new address is outside the jurisdiction of the registrar, the voter is asked to return the card, and the voter registration record is handled accordingly. If the confirmation card is not returned and the voter does not vote in or by the second general federal election that occurs after the date of the notice, he or she may be removed from the VRD. Some states have implemented what is referred to as âportableâ registration, meaning that registered voters who move within the state need not re-apply for registration at their new address; instead, procedures exist to automatically remove the voters from the registry at their old address and add them at their new address. In principle, such systems can mitigate problems arising from the single largest source of duplicate registrations that a state faces. In addition, a stateâs department of motor vehicles can be an important (and in some cases is the primary) source of information regarding changes of address. States that have integrated their voter registration systems with DMV systems have found that many changes of address are much more easily managed. Duplicate Registrations Duplicate registrations in a VRD often cause confusion. For example, since voter turnout percentages are calculated on the basis of the actual number of voters on Election Day divided by the number of registered voters, a VRD with a large number of duplicate registrations can lead to underestimates of voter turnout. The same phenomenon has operational significance in states where referendum propositions require a certain percentage of registered voters to approve the placement of any given proposition on the ballot. It is important to distinguish between two types of âduplicateâ registrations. One type of duplicate (call it âType Aâ) is a record in a database that is identical in all particulars to another recordâ this may occur, for example, if an individual has submitted more than one registration application, as he or she may do entirely by accident if a previous registration is forgotten. In general, removing Type A duplicates from voter registration lists is technically easy to do. A second type of duplicate (call it âType Bâ) is present when two records in the VRD with non- identical information correspond to the same individual. Type B duplicate registrations arise in many ways. Perhaps the most common source is a voterâs change of address (for example, as the result of a move); a second common source is change of name (for example, as the result of marriage). The NVRA establishes procedures that must be followed before a Type B duplicate registration is removed due to a change of address (though not for other reasons), and HAVA establishes a requirement that states provide a unique identifier for every registered voter that is intended to facilitate handling of 11 For more information on the NCOA database and address change services provided by the U.S. Postal Service, see http://www.usps.com/ncsc/addressservices/moveupdate/changeaddress.htm. 12 Commercial software costing in the range of $50,000 is available that checks addresses and formats them so that they can be checked against the NCOA. A less expensive option available to states is to contract with a vendor licensed by the USPS, which can cost several thousand dollars per year to check the entire state database.
8 STATE VOTER REGISTRATION DATABASES: IMMEDIATE ACTIONS AND FUTURE IMPROVEMENTS Type B duplicates. The EACâs Voluntary Guidance on Implementation of Statewide Voter Registration Lists further states that âif a state has identified a name on the voter list that it believes is either a duplicate name (or an ineligible voter), election officials should contact the individual.â13 Nevertheless, states establish the technical criteria for deciding when a Type B duplicate exists and process removals according to their own state-specific rules and guidelines. The best computer matching procedures that have been developed and compared by industry and academic researchers do not appear to be widely used by the states for voter registration purposes. Several of the procedures are relatively easy to implement and have been demonstrated to improve significantly on unsophisticated procedures. States that are not using these procedures can consider how to implement them and how to evaluate the effects of their implementations in reducing error rates. Note also that the use of a unique identifier reduces the technical complexity of managing Type B duplicates. Nevertheless, some matching issues arise even if unique identifiers are present (for example, what to do in the event that the unique identifier is recorded incorrectly). TECHNICAL CONSIDERATIONS FOR VOTER REGISTRATION DATABASES A variety of technical issues affect the performance of voter registration databases. These issues and some of the areas for improvement are discussed below. Data Capture and Quality As is the case with all other databases, the utility of a VRD depends strongly on the quality of the data it contains, although a variety of processes can be applied to the data in order to improve their quality. One common source of error in the data is data entry. Applicants typically submit handwritten voter registration cards that are sent to the voter registrar. The applicant can make a mistake, forget to answer a question, or not write legibly. The form or its information could be altered in transmission (a field could get smudged in postal handling, for example). Keying errors result in mistranscriptions. Another source of error is the quality of other lists that are compared with VRDs. The quality of other lists similarly depends on the procedures for data collection and entry; methods employed to minimize errors in the data, such as removing duplicates and other anomalies from these secondary databases; and training provided to staff and monitoring of staff when entering data, among other aspects. Moreover, the different purposes for which secondary data are collected can limit their use for other purposes and may not fully address what is needed for the purposes of voter registration databases. For instance, the USPS compiles change-of-address data when customers move and request forwarding services through the USPS National Change of Address system. However, because of privacy considerations the USPS limits the disclosure of this information. Also, USPS has defined its information services so as to serve its primary business function, that is, without considering the needs of voter registrars. As a result, the NCOA system cannot be queried with name and date of birth to find out where an individual has moved to; rather a name and address must be presented before the information can be validated. The data contained in a VRD can be characterized with respect to two different attributesâ accuracy and completeness. For purposes of this report, accuracy refers to the factual correctness of the data that exist in the database, whereas completeness refers to the presence in the database of all individuals who should be in the database. If the database is perfect, it is both 100 percent accurate and 100 percent completeâthat is, all of the data in the database are correct (and thus the database contains 13 See http://www.eac.gov/election/docs/statewide_registration_guidelines_072605.pdf/attachment_download/ file.
INTERIM REPORT 9 no individual who should not be in the database), and the database includes all of the individuals who should be in the database. Notice that in this formulation, accuracy does not subsume completeness, so that a database must be characterized with respect to both attributes. This usage of the term âaccurateâ appears to be consistent with the meaning of the word in common discourse. However, the reader is cautioned that some other commentators and analysts use the term âaccurateâ to mean both âfactually correctâ and âcomplete.â Although accuracy and completeness are conceptually distinct attributes, they are generally linked, as the discussion in the next section on matching shows. A more detailed discussion of data capture and quality can be found in Appendix C. Matching Adding new voters to the VRD and maintaining the VRD both require a procedure by which attributes of one data record (for example, a record of an individual in the VRD) are compared to attributes of another record (for example, a voter registration application, a DMV driverâs license, an SSA record, a record in a database of felons, and so on). This procedure, variously known as record linkage, identity matching, identity resolution, or simply ârecord matching,â is âgoodâ when it results in low rates of false positives (matches indicated when no match in fact exists) and false negatives (nonmatches indicated when a match does in fact exist). â¢ In adding individuals to a VRD, poor procedures could result in improper indications of a nonmatch when a match should be indicated (a result that could be used to disenfranchise voters if an applicantâs information cannot be verified or to inflate the size of the VRD list if an earlier registration for an applicant cannot be found) and/or improper indications of a match when a nonmatch should be indicated (a result that could be used to add ineligible names to the VRD list). â¢ In maintaining the VRD, procedures of poor quality will result in improper indications of a match between the voter registration list and one of the databases of ineligible-to-vote individuals when a nonmatch should be indicated (a result that tends to remove voters from the voter registration list improperly) or improper indications of a nonmatch when a match should be indicated (a result that would keep felons, mentally incompetent individuals, and deceased people in the VRD). The consequences of false positives and false negatives may vary depending on the purpose of the matching (and thus depending on the other databases against which VRD records are being matched). By law, the information on new voter registration applications must be matched against DMV or SSA records, and the consequences of a false negative (that is, no matches found when an individual is in fact represented in the DMV or SSA database) may be to wrongly keep the individual off the rollsâfalse negatives in this context may lead to a less complete VRD. List maintenance often calls for existing VRD records to be matched against felon or death records. The consequences of a false negative are precisely the opposite: individuals may erroneously be kept on the rollsâfalse negatives in this context may lead to a less accurate VRD. The converse is true with respect to false positives. Because of data quality issues and the lack of a truly unique identifier, record matching cannot be done perfectly in this context, that is, with zero false positives and zero false negatives. The consequence is that achieving the goal of a simultaneously 100 percent accurate and 100 percent complete voter registration list is virtually impossible. At the same time, what counts as an acceptable rate of false positives or false negatives, or an acceptable tradeoff between accuracy and completeness, depends on the particular policy goals that are desired. For example, given that a choice is necessary, a state may prefer to emphasize completeness over accuracy in its VRD. With this goal in mind, it may choose to minimize the rate of false positives in
10 STATE VOTER REGISTRATION DATABASES: IMMEDIATE ACTIONS AND FUTURE IMPROVEMENTS matching the VRD against a list of felons, a policy choice that almost certainly will increase the number of ineligible individuals on the list. Alternatively, a state may prefer to emphasize accuracy over completeness in its VRD. With this goal in mind, it may choose to minimize the rate of false negatives in matching the VRD against a list of felons, a policy choice that almost certainly will increase the number of legitimately eligible individuals removed from the list.14 Note also that record-matching procedures can, in principle, be executed by computer, by a human being, or both. Computer-based procedures for verification or maintenance have the advantages that they can perform matches very rapidly and can operate consistently (because they depend only on the specific data involved and the prescriptive rules as implemented). But computers using naÃ¯ve matching rules can also be âfooledâ by data problems that suitably trained humans can often handle. Human-based matching has the advantage of bringing to bear training and personal experience, which can be used to determine a match or nonmatch in any given case. However, human-based matching is impractical when large numbers of records are involved. Human-based matching is generally less consistent than computer-based matching but may be better in other areas, such as comparing signatures. These procedures can be used in tandem, so that any anomaly found by a computer-based procedure is directed to a human being before any action is taken.15 (In effect, however, these procedures can break down under the stress of large numbers of applications, as may happen when applications are submitted near the deadline for submission of registrations.) A more detailed discussion of matching can be found in Appendix B. Some privacy issues that arise with matching are addressed in Appendix D. IMMEDIATE ACTIONS POSSIBLE BEFORE NOVEMBER 2008 Given the time frame needed to implement changes that require the modification of computer systems (which involve at a minimum time to design, code, test, and document changes, and may require new procurements, procedures, and/or training), it is unlikely that any recommendation concerning technology changes could be responsibly implemented in time for the 2008 electionsâindeed, if any state is planning significant technology changes intended for use in the 2008 elections, the committee recommends extreme caution in proceeding at this time. This point does not mean that nothing can be done to improve the voter registration process between now and November 2008âthe committee believes that a number of meaningful nontechnical changes can be implemented in time to make a difference. These changes are clustered in two areas: (1) education and dissemination of information and (2) administrative processes and procedures. Of course, implementation will depend on the availability of financial resources to support hitherto unanticipated 14 Arguments might sometimes be put forth to make only a particular subset of the database maximally accurate or maximally complete. While legitimate policy reasons for doing so in some cases cannot be ruled out, such actions are inherently suspect and deserve the highest scrutiny before being implemented. For example, an election official might be motivated to maximize the number of voters in a particular socioeconomic class or other group in order to give his or her party of preference an advantage at the polls. Although the political motivation for wishing to take such action is clear, such an action would do serious injustice to the democratic process, and such a motivation would never be acknowledged publicly. 15 These comments should not be taken to imply that the combination of computer plus human review is necessarily better than the computer alone in all circumstances. Indeed, the literature indicates that for human review to add to the quality of the outcome, human reviewers must be well trained (see, for example, H.B. Newcombe et al., âReliability of Computerized Versus Manual Death Searches in a Study of the Health of Eldorado Uranium Workers,â Computers in Biology and Medicine 13(3):157-69, 1983). Nonetheless, it tends to be true that the combination of good computer matching procedures and well-trained human reviewers is often superior in performance to the use of those procedures alone.
INTERIM REPORT 11 actions and activitiesâsuch resources are especially important when human-intensive actions are involved. The section âPossible Future Improvements That Will Require Longer-Term Actionâ identifies 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. Public Education and Dissemination of Information Raise Public Awareness About the Legibility and the Completeness of Voter Registration Card Information Accurate and complete data are a basic element of a high-quality VRD. But as noted in Appendix C, the quality of the data in a VRD is no better than the data that are entered into the system. For example, illegible information impairs the ability of registrars to verify registrations as required by HAVA and/or state law, possibly placing additional downstream burdens on the voter (such as having to verify information by mail or having to provide an ID when voting the first time). Efforts to raise public awareness about the importance of legibility and fully completing voter registration forms would help to reduce the amount of illegible or missing information on these forms when they are submitted for data entry. Properly undertaken, these efforts to raise public awareness of this particular issue could be integrated with ongoing efforts to encourage people to register to vote. Jurisdictions could take some or all of the following specific steps: â¢ Emphasize in the instructions for filling out voter registration forms the importance of legibility and completeness (for example, âPlease print all responses; if your answers are illegible, your application may be mis-entered, rejected, or returned to you.â).16 â¢ Conduct media campaigns (perhaps undertaken by the Ad Council) emphasizing the importance of legibility and completeness in the information provided on voter registration forms. â¢ 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. Administrative Processes and Procedures A variety of recommended administrative processes and procedures will also help to ensure higher-quality matching and increase voter confidence in VRDs. Note, however, that large volumes of registration forms usually need to be processed as registration deadlines approach, a workload for which jurisdictions commonly rely on temporary staff. Unless other arrangements are made to adjust workflow (such as ensuring that actions that require human judgment are routed to permanent staff), these temporary staff will, in many cases, have to carry out these recommended processes and procedures, suggesting that training them to do so will be necessary. 16 Even the National Mail Voter Registration Form does not address this point.
12 STATE VOTER REGISTRATION DATABASES: IMMEDIATE ACTIONS AND FUTURE IMPROVEMENTS Resubmit Match Queries If the Response Returned from the Social Security Administration or Department of Motor Vehicles Is a Nonmatch An election official can use any additional information available to generate match variations for a given name. For example, a match might be sought on standard name variations (for example, Bill versus William), or transposed fields (for example, last name and first name), or compound names separated, or on a maiden name if available. Finally, it may be possible to resolve a nonmatch result by direct contact with the voter, either by phone or in writing. Provide Human Review of All Computer-indicated Removal Decisions Because inaccuracies in data may lead to false matching by automated processes, the committee urges jurisdictions to provide a human review of each and every decision to remove a registered voter from a VRD subject to the availability of trained personnel to do so. (Note that most of the parties responding to a 2007 survey of the National Association of State Election Directors on voter registration practices indicated that they did rely on humans to verify a match before a voter registration is canceled.17) For example, in one county, letters are sent to individuals who are at risk for being removed from the voter registration list; these letters have a ârespond by date X or be deletedâ notice. If a notice comes back as âundeliverable as addressed,â the name of the individual is deleted after date X. If the issue is duplicate records (that is, if two records appear for the same individual), the incorrect record is deleted. To determine which record is correct, the county checks all data sources (for example, tax records, real estate records, and occasionally the telephone book) and/or contacts the voter. Improve the Transparency of Procedures for Adding Voters and for List Maintenance As noted in Appendix B, there is little transparency in the procedures of any given state for adding voters to a VRD or in maintaining the VRD itself. To improve transparency, the states and local jurisdictions if necessary would be well advised to: â¢ Develop written procedures for the verification of new voters and the handling of removals. These procedures should address explicitly the specific field-level and record-level matching criteria used for each of these processes. Written procedures are needed both to inform the public of what election officials intend to be done and to provide a standard for accountability regarding what is being done. â¢ Publicize these procedures widely. â¢ Collect and publish data on the outcomes of initial applications for registration:18 How many applications were received? Of these, how many were approved and how many rejected? Of those rejected, what were the reasons for rejectionâillegibility, incompleteness, person ineligible (cite reason for ineligibility), and so on. â¢ Collect and publish data on how the state handles removals from the registry: How many removals were made? Of these, how many were due to intrastate movement, death, and so on. 17 See http://www.surveymonkey.com/sr.aspx?sm=jK8QyNXCIwgdaY4SjASFyN0v4coilbBEvQxDuSyIS4s_3d. 18 Many jurisdictions already collect such data, and aggregations of some of these data are published in the EAC Election Day Survey. For more information on the Election Day Survey, see http://www.eac.gov/schedule/2008- election-day-survey/.
INTERIM REPORT 13 BOX I.1 Examples of Auditing Applied to VRD Processes Auditing Removals from Voter Registration Rolls Voter registrars need the date of receipt of registration applications, the date on which a registration- related notice was sent to the voter, the date, if any, of any response from the voter, and the date on which the corrected or completed information was received; indexes of all of these dates must be kept if correspondence and documentation are to be located. In one state, the denial letter is kept with the original application, and these are sorted by year of first receipt and then alphabetically by name. In this stateâs experience, the individuals claiming they had registered but not been found on the voter registration list had often received a copy of the removal letter, as could be demonstrated by referring to the voterâs file. Auditing Changes in Voter Registrations Records The main text of this report suggests that voter access to a voter registration database (VRD) should be implemented through buffered access to a synchronized copy of the VRD, not to the VRD itself. One kind of audit procedure checks expected behavior against actual behavior. For example, an audit procedure could keep a log of which records were changed in the primary source (the VRD) since the last synchronization. This log could be used to identify the records in the copy that are supposed to be changedâchanges in the copy that donât match this list would indicate a problem that election officials could and should investigate further. â¢ Audit the processes to ensure that procedures are being followed (see Box I.1 for examples). Note that collecting and publishing the data suggested above can provide a basis for assessing how big a problem illegibility actually is, how many persons apply who are actually ineligible (for various reasons), and so on. The more of such data there are, the easier it will be for election officials to identify problems and to improve list maintenance procedures. Use Fill-in Online Registration Forms Typewritten or printed information is almost always more legible than handwritten information. Assuming they already have Web sites from which voters may obtain voter registration forms and other election-related materials, jurisdictions could encourage the use of fill-in online registration forms, such as fill-in PDF or Web forms that accept keyboard input (that can be printed, input and all); a number of states provide this service today. Although the form must still be printed, signed, and then mailed or delivered to the voter registrar, the information on the form will be much more legible. (Note that although the deployment of a new encoding of an old formâsuch as the National Mail Voter Registration Formâshould be possible in a relatively short time frame (the EAC is a logical focal point for any such effort), it should not be regarded as a trivial effort that can be accomplished without some care and testing.)
14 STATE VOTER REGISTRATION DATABASES: IMMEDIATE ACTIONS AND FUTURE IMPROVEMENTS Perform Empirical Testing on the Adequacy of Processes for Adding to and Maintenance of Lists The only way to know how well a system is working is to test it. One way to test the adequacy of VRD adding and maintenance processes is to corrupt a copy of the most recent VRD by seeding it with artificial records with names and other identifying information from lists of felons, deaths, and mentally incompetent people and with duplicate records of individuals already in the database but with realistic types of error in them. Once corrupted in this way, the VRD can be matched against all of the usual databases (DMV, felons, and so on) to see what fractions of the corruption in each category were detected, thus providing estimates of rates of false positives and false negatives. Because âground truthâ is known in the form of the original seedings, the fractions of detected corruption are likely to be reasonable estimates of the effectiveness of the process overall.19 A corollary of such testing is that those who receive the data resulting from such testing (ultimately, the public at large) must be educated to interpret the data in contextâand specifically to understand that no procedure for adding or removing voters can be perfect. At the same time, there is nothing to suggest that individual voters who are wrongly eliminated from the VRD cannot complain or seek correction of the problem through existing channels that are available for resolving such problems. Another possible approach to testing is to audit actual acceptance, rejection, and removal decisions, not just to verify that procedures have been followed but also to estimate error rates. Take Steps to Minimize Errors During Data Entry A number of steps can be taken to minimize data entry errors. â¢ Sample audits can be undertaken to assess the degree of the problem and to identify the sourceâsome data entry personnel, for example, may be much less accurate than others. Some systems produce daily data entry reports that can be compared against the original card for errors; such systems are used in a number of jurisdictions. â¢ The registrant can be provided with a copy of the data that were actually entered (for example, when a voter receives his or her registration card, which should in most cases reflect all of the data entered on behalf of the voter), reminded to check the data, and given information on how to contact the election jurisdiction if there are errors on the card. â¢ During the input process, the entered values can be tested against domains (for example, common names, valid addresses including street name and postal code, valid phone numbers, valid dates of birth). â¢ Data can be entered twice by different people and compared for discrepancies (an expensive way to check, but effective in most instances). â¢ Discrepancies can be found when matching new inputs to previously known values (an ideal way to detect transposition keying errors in dates of birth, for example). When errors or inconsistencies in the entered data are found, they should be immediately corrected. In some cases, an examination of the records themselves will indicate how corrections should be made; in other cases, it may be necessary to consult additional data sources or even the voter to make the necessary corrections. For example, the voter registrar might provide a special telephone number for voters to call to make corrections. 19 However, note that even the best state-of-the-art âerror generatorsâ are not capable of generating the full range of errors encountered in real databases. Thus, these estimates are likely not to account for certain kinds of errors; as a result, actual performance in realistic settings could be expected to be different and probably somewhat worse.
INTERIM REPORT 15 The first two of these steps can be taken in the short term. The other three require a nontrivial amount of new technology deployment, and it is unlikely that they could be undertaken successfully in time for the November 2008 election. Allow Selected Individuals to Suppress Address Information on Public Disclosures of Voter Registration Status Although voter registration information is nominally public in most states, certain individuals (domestic violence victims, undercover police officers, witness protection program participants) have legitimate reasons for wanting to make address information inaccessible to the public, and an administrative process should be available to protect such information on request. Some privacy advocates might argue for the broadest possible scope of individuals who should be granted such privileges, but the committee is silent on this particular point. Enacting this recommendation may require legislation in many jurisdictions; if so, it is probably not practical for 2008. 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 Voter registrar offices can be overwhelmed by the mechanics of data entry if large numbers of voter registration applications must be processed in a very short time. Such a volume reduces the time for error checking or multiple attempts to verify voter information, and often forces registrars to hire inexperienced temporary workers for data entry. These conditions in turn are likely to increase the error rate of data entry and may invalidate more registration applications than would be the case if more time were available to handle the applications. POSSIBLE FUTURE IMPROVEMENTS THAT WILL REQUIRE LONGER-TERM ACTION As indicated in the previous section, a number of improvements are possible in state VRDs that can only be implemented in a longer time frame than that provided by the November 2008 election. Some discussion of these improvements is included in this interim report to provide advice to states as they begin developing their priorities for voter registration databases for the 2010 elections and in next yearâs budgeting and planning process. In some cases, the improvements discussed will require a time- delimited investment associated with acquisition and deployment and a smaller stream of funding afterward; in other cases, they will require additional funding on a continuing basis as operating expenses. The committeeâs final report will address these longer-term recommendations in greater detail when needed. Develop and Promote Public Access Portals for Online Checking of Voter Registration Status In anticipation of being able to vote on Election Day, prospective voters may wish to check their voter registration status so that any irregularities can be corrected in time. Web-based portals for checking the state VRD increase the ability of individuals to do so. For example, such a portal may ask the user to provide a name, birth date, and Zip code, and return either the userâs current registration status
16 STATE VOTER REGISTRATION DATABASES: IMMEDIATE ACTIONS AND FUTURE IMPROVEMENTS or an indication that there is no record on file that matches the information provided. Some jurisdictions already provide this service to voters today. Such portals help to increase transparency in the VRD and will create another opportunity for the verification of voter information. They benefit individual voters who want to verify their information, and may provide an opportunity (if it is legal to do so, and if potential privacy concerns over retention of the data can be addressed) for third-party voter registration groups that wish to confirm that the applications they have collected have been received, processed, and accurately entered in the voter registration database. States that have developed such portals (for example, Nevada20 and Nebraska21) have generally integrated them into their voter registration Web sites. These portals must access information stored in a stateâs VRD, which means that their development requires some sensitivity to and technical capacity for dealing with security issues. For example, data compromises have been reported in other instances when live queries have been allowed access to the primary database, suggesting that it may be safer to implement some sort of buffered arrangement whereby the portal provides access only to a synchronized copy containing only the minimum amount of information. Another point to be considered is the prevention of automated exploitation that might circumvent existing legal restrictions on making the voter registration database available to commercial users; automated tests that distinguish between human and automated responses (such as âcaptchas,â which require the user to type the letters displayed in a distorted image) may be relevant in this regard, although this is an ongoing battle. Special steps must also be taken to prevent the display of voter registration information for individuals who need protection, such as victims of domestic abuse or individuals in witness protection, and in any event, the information to be displayed at all should be the minimum information needed for the voter to know that he or she is registered to vote and to inform the voter of the proper polling place (for example, driverâs license numbers or SSNs (even SSN4) do not need to be displayed). Some states collect more information (for example, phone numbers, occupation, or e-mail addresses) on their application forms than is necessary for voter registration per se; such information poses increased privacy risks to the individual if needlessly disclosed. Finally, for all states that provide online verification of voter registration information, it is important to inform voters that they should check their voter registration status well in advance of Election Day. Some security issues are discussed in Appendix D. Encourage/Require Departments of Motor Vehicles as Well as Public Assistance and Disability Service Agencies to Provide Voter Registration Information Electronically The NVRA requires state DMVs, public assistance agencies, and disability service agencies to facilitate the voter registration process. Today, this facilitation is mostly paper-based. Automatically providing information on new applications or changes of address to voter registrars would significantly reduce the burden of maintaining VRDs by reducing requirements for manual data entry and updating registrations with new addresses.22 20 See https://nvsos.gov/VoterSearch/. 21 See https://www.votercheck.necvr.ne.gov/. 22 This recommendation is consistent with the EACâs Voluntary Guidance on Implementation of Statewide Voter Registration Lists, III-D.2-d. This particular guidance notes that states should âensure that the coordination of information in the verification process is accurate and efficient. Verification of voter registration information shall be accomplished through electronic transmission. Further, to the greatest extent allowed by State law and available technologies, this electronic transfer between statewide voter registration lists and coordinating, verification databases should be accomplished through direct, secure, interactive and integrated connections.â See http://www.eac.gov/election/docs/statewide_registration_guidelines_072605.pdf/attachment_download/file.
INTERIM REPORT 17 As part of promoting cooperation and coordination between voter registrars and these other public service agencies, states may wish to develop and maintain performance metrics on the percentage of voter registration additions, modifications, and deletions that arrive electronically and on the number of electronic files that arrive from NVRA agencies that contain errors requiring correction. Such figures would provide a way of holding these agencies more accountable for their NVRA responsibilities. The committee recognizes that election officials have no control over the budgets or operations of these agencies, a fact that often leads to a certain amount of bureaucratic politics as Agency A seeks to persuade Agency B to help carry out the mission of Agency A. 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 Agencies of state and local government communicate with the public regularly, and each such communication is an opportunity to remind voters to check and update their information. Such reminders would entail little additional cost and could be helpful in increasing the accuracy and completeness of the data contained in VRDs. Further, the online environment provides opportunities for less passive forms of reminderâfor example, individuals who use online government services to indicate a change of address (for example, on tax or property assessment records) can be offered reminders to update their registration information, or can even be routed automatically to online voter registration services to effect a similar change of address. Note that such additions to the online environment for these other service agencies would be significantly less expensive than implementing the previous recommendation on developing and promoting portals for online checking of registration status and thus might well be a first long-term step that states could take. Improve Matching Procedures As noted in Appendix B, many (if not most) of the matching procedures used by the states have been developed on the basis of intuitive reasoning without further systematic validation or mathematically rigorous analysis, do not reflect the state of the art in matching techniques, and have not been validated in the market, scientifically, or otherwise. State-of-the-art matching techniques have been successfully used in a variety of commercial and government applications. The committee believes that there are several areas in which matching involving VRDs can be improved, and thus recommends that voter registrars engage the relevant technical community when considering improvements in matching techniques as described in the section âImproving Record-Level Matchingâ in Appendix B. The enhanced methods should improve the capability for locating of duplicates in the VRD, the matching of voters against the state DMV file and the SSA files, and the matching of registered voters against any secondary federal or state list (for example, of deaths, felons, and so on). A demonstration of the effectiveness of these enhanced methods could be performed by applying them to a particular stateâs VRD file and showing how rates of false positives can be quite low even while significantly lowering rates of false negatives. Establish a Software Repository of Tested Matching Algorithms To support the adoption of improved matching procedures, a software repository of tested and debugged matching algorithms to which states had free access could reduce the burden on individual states to implement such procedures. A number of entities could provide such a repository, such as the EAC or the National Association of State Elections Directors.
18 STATE VOTER REGISTRATION DATABASES: IMMEDIATE ACTIONS AND FUTURE IMPROVEMENTS Provide Voter Registration Receipts to Improve Administrative Processes Voter registration cards should have a tear-off receipt, and online registrants should be told to make a copy of the online form as their receipts. Then the data should be kept by the states, and reported to the EAC, on how many individuals attempted to vote and were not registered but had their receipts. States should then be encouraged to lower that number. In addition, the receipt might also include a tracking number or bar code to match it with the registration card itself, facilitating the association of specific individuals with specific forms. On the other hand, because including such a number or code would almost certainly have to be a government function, such numbers or codes might run afoul of the NVRA, which specifically allows private duplication of voter registration forms in order to facilitate their widest possible distribution. In addition, numbered forms entail additional costs for printing. Some states provide numbered registration forms today. The committee, however, takes no position on the general desirability of tracking numbers or codes at this time. Although the use of these receipts is not intended to substitute for a proper voter registration or for provisional voting, such receipts would provide a factual basis for investigating, at least partially, claims from one political party that supporters of the other party had âpocketedâ voter registration formsâthat is, when conducting voter registration drives, receiving registrations for people of the opposite party and never turning them in. This activity is against the law, but there can be no proof as to whether it has occurred unless there is some form of receipt given to the person registering. If there were receipts, then people who possessed the receipts but were not in the VRD would be proof of some problem, including the possibility that registration forms had gone missing. The committee recognizes that the NVRA (Section 8(a)(2)) already requires that election officials provide notice to applicants on the disposition of all voter registration applications. But this requirement can only be met when the applications indeed make it into the hands of these officialsâif they never arrive, notice cannot be given, and individuals who never receive a notice cannot prove that they should have received notice. Allow Voters to Register and to Update Missing or Incorrect Registration Information Online If a Signature Is Already on File with a State Agency As noted in Appendix C, typographical errors could be reduced significantly by eliminating the data transcription process and importing most or all of the relevant data from another system and/or allowing the voter to enter data himself or herself when necessary. However, the voter will always have to provide at registration some means of authenticating himself or herself at the polls, such as a signature. A mail-in registration form can contain a box for the voterâs signature, but online registration requires the applicant to appear (or to have appeared) somewhere in person at some official government agency to provide a signature. If this signature is digitized, it can be made available to the voter registrar along with the information needed to register to vote. A number of states today take advantage of the fact that their driverâs licenses have signatures and have developed online registration portals that enable citizens with such licenses to register to vote online without having to appear in person anywhere. Registration portals can also leverage the fact that basic information about the individual, such as name, address, birth date, and so on, is often also stored along with the signatureâsuggesting that importing the relevant data from the original state agency with the signature into the voter registration database is feasible in principle. When the voter registration application required information not already on file, the user would enter the information himself or herself and then be given a chance to verify and correct the information. In addition, individuals whose registration forms contain illegible or missing information could be notified of that fact and at the same time be given a special code or password that would grant entry to a secure Web page, whereupon the individual could correct or provide the missing data. In the longer
INTERIM REPORT 19 term, it might be possible to imagine real-time verification of a voter application, so that an applicant whose information did not match DMV or SSA information on file could be informed of that fact immediately, so that corrections could be made at the moment. Develop Procedures for Handling Disenfranchisement Caused by Mistaken Removals from Voter Registration Lists Any given removal of a name from a voter registration list may have been performed in error. Indeed, a great deal of experience with information technology suggests that even a combination of automated and human matching can sometimes result in inappropriate action because of data errors, inherent ambiguity in the data, algorithm deficiencies, human error, and so on. For example, a felony may have been reduced to a misdemeanor by the court without that fact being made known to election officials. Other sources of error exist as well, and there is an inherent unfairness in changing a voterâs status and potentially disenfranchising him or her without providing an opportunity for contesting the removal. Procedures for addressing disenfranchisement could be handled in a number of different ways. For example, one approach is to provide the person removed from a voter registration list with the opportunity to contest that decision before the removal is made final. Yet small election offices might find this approach onerous in light of small staffs, high mailing costs, and other pertinent issues. In addition, notification of voters removed from the list may be upsetting to the families of those individuals suffering from the pain of a relativeâs death or being declared mentally incompetent. Another approach might be to allow a voter disenfranchised by being removed to vote provisionally. Such an approach is mandated by HAVA for federal elections, but it could be adopted for state and local elections as well. Developing such procedures might well require new legislation and administrative processes. Improve the Design of Voter Registration Forms The design of forms has a significant impact on their usability and their ability to capture the data that the form filler intends to record. For example, providing a specific separate space for each letter/number of the name/address often improves the legibility of forms completed, and may improve the suitability of the filled-out form for processing by optical character recognition software. However, form design is often challenging and generally requires a significant degree of empirical testing to assess the usability of any given design.23 23 An informative reference on the design of forms for use by election officials is Marcia Lausen, Design for Democracy: Ballot and Election Design, University of Chicago Press and American Institute of Graphic Arts, 2007.