Voter registration plays a central role in elections in the United States. 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 required to be 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 establishes 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 requires that an attempt be made to verify the information provided on a first-time voter registration application 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. If a nonmatch is found, the election officials in most states will make an attempt to contact the applicant so that he or she can provide additional information, but there is variation in how the states manage the nonmatch. In addition, HAVA Section 303(b) requires that an applicant who cannot be matched against one of these databases be allowed to vote on Election Day provided he or she can present appropriate identification at the polling place.
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.
Databases that are accurate and complete require execution of both tasks. (Accuracy refers to the factual correctness of the data that exist in the database; completeness refers to the presence in the database of all individuals who should be in the database.) These tasks require good data as well as good matching procedures. But in practice, a variety of practical problems arise such as data entry error. In addition, to the best of the committee’s knowledge, 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.
The recommendations of the Committee on State Voter Registration Databases are divided into two categories: actions that can be implemented in a relatively short time frame, and actions that will need more time to implement. The committee also notes that although this report focuses on voter registration databases, such databases are always part of a larger system that includes human beings and institutions. Solutions to technical problems may in some cases also require changes to state election law or regulation and/or to state or local practice and procedures, and should not be regarded as being exclusively about changing computer systems.
The Help America Vote Act provided a substantial one-time infusion of money for states to acquire modern information technology for supporting election administration, including the statewide voter registration systems that have been deployed. However, all experience with information technology suggests that the initial acquisition cost of information technology is a relatively small fraction of its life-cycle costs. Ongoing funding streams will be needed both to maintain VRD systems (and the data they hold) in good operating condition over time and to implement many of the improvements described below.
The short-term recommendations address changes of a nontechnical nature related to (1) education and dissemination of information and (2) administrative processes and procedures. The long-term recommendations address the improvement of data collection and entry; matching procedures; privacy, security, and backup; and database interoperability.
All of these recommendations are directed primarily at election officials (voter registrars) at the state and local/county level, and the legislatures and county commissions that make policy regarding the conduct of elections at the state and local level. In some cases, the Election Assistance Commission has a useful role to play as well in facilitating and promoting their implementation.
Short-Term Recommended Actions—Public Education and Dissemination of Information
S-1: 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 Recommended Actions—Administrative Processes and Procedures
S-2: Resubmit alternate match queries if the response returned from the Social Security Administration or department of motor vehicles is a nonmatch.
S-3: Provide human review of all computer-indicated removal decisions.
S-4: Improve the transparency of procedures for adding voters and for list maintenance.
S-5: Use printable fill-in online registration forms.
S-6: Perform empirical testing on the adequacy of processes for adding to and maintaining lists.
S-7: Take steps to find and minimize errors during data entry.
S-8: Allow selected individuals to suppress address information on public disclosures of voter registration status.
S-9: Encourage entities sponsoring voter registration drives to submit voter registration forms in a timely manner to reduce massive influxes at the registration deadline.
S-10: Improve information sharing regarding best practices and lessons learned regarding VRD acquisition, operation, and maintenance.
Long-Term Recommended Actions—Funding
L-1: Provide long-term funding for sustaining voter registration database operations.
Long-Term Recommended Actions—Data Collection and Entry
L-2: Develop and promote public access portals for online checking of voter registration status.
L-3: Allow voters to register and to update missing or incorrect registration information online.
L-4: Encourage/require departments of motor vehicles as well as public assistance and disability service agencies to provide voter registration information electronically.
L-5: Improve the design of voter registration forms.
L-6: Encourage and if possible 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.
L-7: Consider providing tracking tags for voter registration forms to improve administrative processes.
Long-Term Actions—Matching Procedures
L-8: Upgrade the match algorithms and procedures used by election officials, the Social Security Administration, and departments of motor vehicles:
Use automated name rooting (the process through which name equivalents are generated, such as “Bill” and “Will” for “William”);
Use automated name ordering (the process through which permutations of possible name equivalents are generated, such as “Lucia Vega Garcia” being represented as “Lucia Vega,” “Lucia Garcia,” or “Lucia Vega-Garcia”);
Provide wildcard matching capabilities (capabilities for performing searches on incompletely specified names); and
Use blocking and string comparators (comparison techniques used to generate a score reflecting degree of similarity rather than a simple “match-or-nonmatch” result).
L-9: Use commonly used unique identifiers for voter identification when available and when necessary privacy safeguards are in place.
L-10: Establish standards or best practices for matching algorithms.
L-11: Use the Social Security Death Master File and STEVE2 (when deployed) for list maintenance.
L-12: Use third-party data when available to resolve possible matches.
L-13: Develop procedures for handling potential disenfranchisement caused by mistaken removals from voter registration lists.
Long-Term Recommended Actions—Privacy, Security, and Backup
L-14: Implement basic practices for backing up important data.
L-15: Implement basic security measures.
L-16: Take measures to help ensure system accessibility during critical times.
L-17: Consider fair information practices as a point of departure for protecting privacy in voter registration databases.
L-18: Take steps to protect voter privacy when voter registration data are released on a large scale.
L-19: Review appropriate nonelection uses of voter registration data.
Long-Term Recommended Actions—Database Interoperability
L-20: Encourage and if possible require state, local, and federal agencies to cooperate with election officials in providing data to support voter registration.
L-21: Use inexpensive data export functions to facilitate data exchange.
L-22: Develop national standards for data-exchange formats for voter registration databases.