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Workers finish entering recount ballot data in Tukwila, Wash., in December 2004. The governor’s race was eventually decided by a 129-vote margin. (AP file photo)

Accurate voter lists: still a goal, not a reality

ASK THIS | March 03, 2006

Expert Roy Saltman on the history and current status of voter registration, including fraud, inaccuracies, laws promoting enfranchisement and what needs to be done.

By Roy G. Saltman

Q: Has poor communication among state agencies exacerbated the task of compiling accurate voter rolls?

Q: How can information about newly registered voters, voter deaths and voter relocations be handled in a timely fashion?

Q: How have state agencies (departments of motor vehicles, for instance) adapted to demands placed on them, demands unrelated to their everyday duties?

(1) A History of Frauds and Inaccuracies: 

A review of history is in order because people repeat, even now, statements that some folks are able to “vote early and often” and that politicians can supposedly control elections by “voting the cemetery.” Thus, imprecision in voter registration lists raises the possibilities of fraud and decreases confidence in announced results of elections.

Note: Click here for other items on Voting Security from NiemanWatchdog.org

There has always been a certain amount of suspicion about who has been able to vote. Cynicism and doubts go back to the 18th century. When there were landholding requirements for voting, certain persons were temporarily sold small plots of land to qualify for voting; these plots were re-sold to the original owners after the election. Votes cast by such persons were called “fagot votes,” a term apparently coming from England, where the practice originated.

After landholding and taxpaying requirements for voting were ended, state-by-state, in the early 19th century, new sources of data for voter registration were needed. Registration was begun in the largest cities, where neighbors were not known to each other and the transient population was high. Historian Peter Argersinger has written about the late 19th century that “most states did not have meaningful (or even any) registration laws, making it exceedingly difficult to determine voter eligibility ... Election officials were generally partisan, rather than nonpartisan or bipartisan and mobs of excited party workers surrounded the polls.” Fraud was common in rural as well as in urban areas. In that era, “shoulder-hitters” were toughs employed to intimidate opposition voters and keep them from approaching polling stations. The use of “floaters” and “repeaters” (people paid to vote more than once) was a large industry around election time. Indiana was notorious for these practices because it had no voter registration requirements even in the early 20th century.

In the 1920s, political scientist Joseph P. Harris made a study of voter registration practices, and his work was published by The Brookings Institution of Washington, DC, in 1929 as Registration of Voters in the United States. (Harris would invent the Votomatic punch card ballot system in 1962.)  Some of Harris’ recommendations were implemented in various cities. Slowly, voter registration systems were improved; for example, they were centralized, removing control from local political party leaders who could submit false lists of persons to be registered.

(2) Laws Promoting Enfranchisement: The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s brought an end to the denial of votes on the basis of race. African American and Native American voting rights  began to be restored with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 and its amendments through 1982, as well as with the elimination of poll taxes through a Constitutional amendment and a Supreme Court decision. Requirements to improve access to the ballot by military and overseas citizens were adopted in law under the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act (UOCAVA) of 1986.

The passage of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) in 1993 had an additional impact. Before that, in some places, voter registration was limited to a few hours during weekdays at a single location, which made it difficult for working people to register. Furthermore, before the passage of the NVRA, voter registration rolls were typically cleared of “deadwood” by purging names of voters who had not voted recently. The duration of time before a name could be removed varied from state-to-state. In an era of manual record-keeping and very poor data communications, this procedure was a reasonable response to a difficult problem, as long as the duration of non-voting before removal was at least two years.

The NVRA changed this. It required that no voter’s name be purged from registration rolls for federal elections solely for the failure to vote, regardless of the duration of non-voting. While the law does not cover registration rolls for state-level offices, no state has separate lists for the two types of elections. The maintenance of separate lists would be too expensive, so in effect the NVRA covers registration rolls for both types. Furthermore, the NVRA required that certain public agencies, e.g., motor vehicle bureaus and welfare offices, provide applications for voter registration. A few states had provided for a “motor-voter” registration process before passage of the NVRA, but most states had not. As the NVRA did not include an appropriation of funds to cover implementation of such systems, some state legislatures did not rush to implement the requirement. It was seen as just another federal “unfunded mandate.”

The passage of the NVRA forced a detailed reconsideration of the problem of maintaining truly accurate lists of registered voters. Now, the U.S. Postal Service has become an important part of the system: state agencies mail inquiry notices to people it believes have moved to other districts, and failure to return the inquiry may be the only way that the person’s name may be lawfully removed from the voting rolls. (Assuming, of course, the voter has not registered elsewhere or died or been convicted of a felony.) Voters who have not voted in several elections are sometimes divided into “active” and “inactive” categories on state or local governments’ registration lists.

The administrative disaster in the Presidential election in Florida in 2000 revealed that poor data communication between motor vehicle agencies and voter registration agencies resulted in the inability of some persons who thought they had registered at a motor vehicle agency to be able to vote. The difficulty, recognized in Congress, of establishing accurate registration systems resulted in a new requirement, stated in the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) and adopted in October 2002. Now, each state must establish a computerized, statewide voter registration list. Funds appropriated with passage of HAVA and made available to each state on a one-time basis may be used in the development of such a list.

(3)  The Current Situation:  Following the 2004 general election, reviews indicated that acceptable accuracy of voter registration lists was still a goal and not a reality. In the analysis of all persons who had voted in the contested election for governor of Washington state—in which the winner’s margin was 129 votes—it was determined that that there were 1401 votes by convicted felons who had not received certificates of discharge from the sentencing court, 19 votes by dead persons, six double votes, 177 erroneous provisional votes and 77 extra votes from a single county that were in excess of the number of voters reported to have voted there. Additionally, voter-roll inaccuracies may have been responsible for the large volume of provisional ballots in some states. An analysis of voter rolls in six states, reported by The Chicago Tribune on December 4, 2004, found more than 181,000 registered dead persons. Thousands more were registered to vote in two places

(4)  The Necessary Data System:  As the United States has no national election system, but instead 51 separate election systems (in each state and the District of Columbia), no general response can be made to questions about maintaining voter registration lists. Within each state, a complete data entry and communications system must be established. Participants who need to be included in the system are at least the following:

  • officials of county, town and city voter registration offices, so that new registrations and changes of address may be correctly and quickly reported;
  • officials of motor-vehicle bureaus or other public agencies that have been designated as locations where voter registration applications may be submitted, so that applications, as well as changes of address, may be quickly and accurately transmitted to an appropriate voter registration office;
  • officials in charge of health and vital statistics, for reports of deaths and of persons adjudged mentally incompetent who may, under state law, thereby lose their voting rights;
  • officials in charge of criminal justice information so that, consistent with state law, persons convicted of felonies, or freed from criminal justice supervision, will have the necessary information about their new voter registration status quickly and accurately reported;
  • officials of the US Postal Service, so that its National Change of Address data system can be used to update address changes as they are reported;
  • the state office responsible, under a HAVA requirement, for coordinating military and overseas registrations; and
  • officials who manage state voter registration databases in other states, so that a voter’s change of address to a new state may be quickly reported to the state from which the voter moved. (HAVA did not address this problem, but it is vital for this data path to be implemented.)

(5) Progress:  Earlier, it was noted that some states regarded the NVRA as an unfunded mandate from the federal government. Similarly, some state or local government agencies that must supply information under NVRA may hold the view that requirements imposed by their state election departments are also an unfunded mandate, unless adequate provision has been made in state budgets for the new responsibilities and for the staff and equipment required.

Specific answers for any particular state, with regard to the questions posed, are left to investigative reporters to determine. A state will have addressed the problem of accuracy and completeness of voter registration lists if it has established an implementation office and has brought together all of the appropriate parties in order to develop a plan. The plan will have listed, for each involved agency or office, the resources that each needs to carry out its responsibility and its schedule for doing so. The plan is likely to be implemented if those resources are obtained from the state legislature and/or the state executive. Success will be indicated by the results of further studies that evaluate the accuracy of these new and improved databases.  

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