Here’s how to clean up messy voter rolls

November 3, 2013
(Orlin Wagner/AP)
(Orlin Wagner/AP)

When Virginia’s Board of Elections said it would remove tens of thousands of names from its voter rolls this year, voting-rights advocates cried foul, and went to court. But while Republicans criticized Democrats for opening elections to fraud, and Democrats complained Republicans were disenfranchising thousands of voters, the spat brought up a very real concern states across the nation face: Voter rolls are messy, and someone has to clean them up.

People move. People die. People get married and re-register under new names. Election administrators across the country face the tightrope of making sure their voter rolls are accurate while avoiding erasing a valid record.

Seven states believe they have the answer: The Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC.

Developed by the Pew Charitable Trusts and IBM, ERIC uses several databases to compare voters across state lines. The system compares voter list data with Department of Motor Vehicle records, Social Security Administration records, the Postal Service’s national change of address registry and other databases to match voters across state lines; if the system concludes with a high degree of confidence that a John Doe on one state’s voter roll is the same John Doe in another state, the record is flagged.

“You match enough of [the data points] across records that you have a lot of confidence ,” said David Becker, Pew’s director of election initiatives. “It’s impossible for [states], based only on a name and birth date, to keep their lists up to date and identify when someone has died, for example.”

Pew and IBM developed the program, but the states themselves run it. So far, seven states — Washington, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Virginia, Maryland and Delaware — belong to the consortium. And because states share their data, the more states that join, the stronger the system becomes.

The early results have been encouraging. Shane Hamlin, the chairman of the ERIC board and the deputy director of elections in Washington state, said his state has screened for deceased voters through Social Security Administration lists for years; on its first pass, ERIC found 25 percent more dead voters still on the rolls than has the old system.

“Because we’ve got multiple data sources coming in, we get more credible reports coming out,” Hamlin said in an interview. “The more states that are in, the better it is for the states that participate. One of the principles here is more data in, better data out.”

To protect the data, the ERIC system uses what’s known as one-way hashing, which is supposed to provide security and privacy. The software runs a Social Security number or a driver’s license number from one state through the hashing, which turns it into a unique 40-digit code. It then runs the same kind of number from another state through the same hashing; if the two resulting 40-digit codes match, the initial numbers are deemed to have matched. The resulting codes cannot be changed back into their original numbers.

Twenty-eight states have already joined another consortium, the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, run by the Kansas Secretary of State’s office. That system examines voters on the rolls in different states using identical name and date-of-birth matches. The Crosscheck program is the one Virginia used to scrub its lists earlier this year.

Don Palmer, the secretary of the Virginia Board of Elections, said his state hadn’t received enough ERIC data to use it to scrub its voter rolls in time. Because so many more states use Crosscheck, Palmer said, Virginia was able to take a more comprehensive look at their own rolls.

Voting-rights advocates say that isn’t enough to guarantee legitimate voters won’t be canceled inadvertently. But those advocates like the ERIC system — provided the states use the information they receive in a responsible manner.

“If we have a good list that we give to the states, the other piece of this is, how do the states provide notice and protection to voters before they take them off the rolls?” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of The Advancement Project. “Building in those protections is going to be key.”

Hamlin said the ERIC system can actually be used to build a state’s voter rolls, rather than just erasing outdated records. Because the system matches DMV data against voter rolls, it can spit out a list of licensed drivers who aren’t registered. That saves a state money when they launch voter registration drives — now they know who to target.

“ERIC gives us this great tool to target voter registration education, so we can reach out to people who aren’t registered,” Hamlin said. Washington has already sent two rounds of mail to licensed drivers who aren’t registered. “The more targeted the outreach is, the more cost-effective it is.”

Pew is slated to roll out another pitch to get other states involved in its ERIC program. Hamlin said elections officials in the seven participating states are also recruiting other states to get involved.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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