D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) plans to spend $3 million to overhaul the city’s voter registration database, a file that is riddled with errors, including the names of deceased residents and thousands of voters whose births erroneously date to the 1800s, according to a recent audit.
The move comes as President Trump launches a commission on “election integrity” to cut down on voter fraud, but city officials say that is a coincidence.
“There is no connection. This decision was made well before President Trump’s election integrity commission,” Bowser spokesman Kevin Harris said Tuesday.
The mayor and members of the D.C. Council, many of whom announced Tuesday that they would back the effort, said they also have far different motives than those they perceive as propelling Trump’s commission.
The president’s board includes those who support strict voter ID laws, and the effort follows unsubstantiated claims Trump made shortly after taking office that more than 3 million undocumented immigrants voted illegally in November’s election. The commission is supposed to report next year on suspect election practices, with the accuracy of voter rolls expected to be an area of focus.
Under Bowser’s plan, D.C. will develop a new centralized, citywide voter registration as well as an election-management database, capable of drawing in more timely information from city agencies, federal courts and other states to keep voter rolls current and make it easier for residents to vote.
“This will actually improve accessibility to voting for District residents,” Harris said. “The mayor’s request is not a witch hunt for election fraud and abuse that has been proven time and again to be false.”
It’s doubtful that any change in D.C. voter rolls could turn the tide for Trump, who won just 4 percent of ballots cast in the city in November.
But the timing of the mayor’s proposed revamp surprised many. It lagged two years behind a call by the D.C. auditor to invest in new election systems, and it was included in a list of last-minute changes to the current budget year which ends in September.
D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), whose committee assumed oversight of elections this year, said there was no doubt the overhaul is overdue.
“If you’ve looked at the numbers in recent years, you kind of had to suspend disbelief — at one point, 110 percent of District residents were registered to vote,” Allen said.
Elections officials have acknowledged that glitches in the District’s voter rolls — and the transient nature of the nation’s capital — have compounded errors in the District’s voter records.
For one, when the city moved to computerized records about 20 years ago, the system automatically entered “1800” as the default birth year for every registered voter who did not have a birth date listed. District officials began using a system that allowed them to check records against Social Security numbers in 2014, but they did not clean up the data. An audit last year found 6,543 voters in the system who were born between 1800 and 1899 — a number the auditor wrote “must be inaccurate.”
D.C. elections officials also told auditors they had purged hundreds of names of people who had died from city voter rolls in recent years, but auditors randomly checked 33 names of voters who had died between 2011 and 2014, and all of them were still listed in the voter database.
The District only began coordinating with a national system of state voter rolls less than two years ago, allowing it to track voters who left the nation’s capital and subsequently registered elsewhere.
Allen said that elections officials have told him the overhaul should be completed by next June’s primary election.
Allen said that he has demanded that the elections board keep the old system operating alongside the new one, and that the new system be tested thoroughly before the old one is taken offline.
D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) said he hoped that once completed, the new system could help insulate the city from criticism.
“I have said for a long time that the board of elections needs to be more aggressive in maintaining voter rolls,” he said, “But there’s a difference between being a mess and people cheating. I am unaware of any voter fraud in the District. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist, but must be so minuscule.”