How We Should (Voter) Roll

David Becker is unusual in national politics. He talks about inaccuracies in voting rolls, dead people still registered, and the like. He says the bad information is a big problem. But he's not on the far right talking about voter fraud or the need for major purges to the states' rolls before an election. Instead, he's the director of election initiatives for the non-partisan Pew Center on the States. And his research tells him that better data would actually help more people vote—and make elections a smoother, more efficient process that should please folks on both sides of the political divide. 

Far-right groups argue that voter fraud is rampant, and demand that states do more to delete names on the lists. The left brushes off the fraud claim (citing facts), focusing instead on voter registration drives. There's not much common ground. But an investment in better tools to manage voter registration—and allow for online registration—would make a huge difference to both camps: It would decrease inaccuracies, which conservatives say is their great worry, while making it easier to figure out where people aren't registered and help to get them into the system, which progressive want. 

"The fact is, the rolls are not particularly accurate or strong or up to date," Becker says. "It's not due to fraud, it's not due to anything like that. What it's due to is that election officials don't have the tools to keep up with people as they move."

A Pew report in February found that one out of every eight voter registrations in the country was either not valid anymore or had some key inaccuracies. That's a big problem, because it means voters may not be getting the information they need to get registered. And it means that county and state election boards are wasting money mailing information to voters who have moved. The costs aren't just financial; in 2008, an estimated 2.2 million people couldn't cast votes because of problems with their registration.

Fixing the problem would require significant changes and investment. But Pew, working the states, has found some solutions that could make those 2.2 million eligible, and also allow states to register millions more eligible voters. 

Currently, voter registrations in many states still operate much the way they did 100 years ago: People fill out a piece of paper, mail it in or turn it in, and are then registered. Most "third-party" voter registration drives (those from outside groups) use an upcoming election to encourage people to vote, an effective tactic but one that often leads to huge numbers of registrations getting dropped off in weeks or even days before an election. "Election officials have little ability to regulate and manage the process because the current system design relegates them to a largely reactive role," read a 2011 Pew report. State workers must pull overtime to input the late-arriving data, often a costly and ineffiencient process that opens the door for human error. Meanwhile, states have few ways to update those records. As people move or die, election officials are rarely alerted, and are often left with a passive option: When mail to the address gets returned, a voter gets placed on an "inactive voter" list, and if he or she does not vote for the next two years, the name is removed. 

Americans are far too mobile for such a process to be accurate or efficient; one in eight Americans moves each year. Without systemic changes, the voter rolls are bound to be full of errors. 

The first step to fixing the problem, Becker says, is to move the registration effort away from Election Day, when things are most hectic. Instead of waiting for outside groups to drop off thousands of registrations right before an election, Becker says states should encourage people to register throughout the year. In addition to offering voter registration at departments of motor vehicles, officials could work to offer voter registration at other locations and throughout the year. That would create a more even flow of work, and prevent the extreme rush that so often leads to input errors.

Online voter registration is another key. It significantly decreases input error. By allowing the voter to enter his or her own information, there's no risk that an election worker will misread someone's handwriting; typos are much more likely to be caught. Online registration saves money, too. In Maricopa County, Arizona, which has a larger population than 23 states, officials saved $1 million over five years when they made the switch to online registration. Printing costs alone went down 75 percent, and the average cost of each online registration was only 3 cents—as opposed to 83 cents when voters registered on paper. 

But how to keep those rolls accurate after people have registered, as they move around or change information or die? It can be extremely difficult to match up voter registrations with other records. Just using someone's name and birthday is almost never enough, and even with more sophisticated matching techniques, using Social Security numbers or data from a state's Department of Motor Vehicles, human error during input can prevent a researcher from figuring out if John Doe in Precinct 10 is the same John Doe who once lived in Precinct 5. Unlike other countries with citizen registries, Becker says "we don't have a magic list. We don't have a list of all citizens in the U.S." 

In lieu of a national registry, Pew, along with eight participating states, is working to develop a national "data exchange"—one location where multiple data sources can be integrated, so that voter information is significantly more accurate. The states—Washington, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, and Connecticut—oversee the exchange, and information is heavily protected with encryption to ensure privacy. The exchange is effective because states submit multiple sets of information, like tax records and Department of Motor Vehicle information, in addition to voter registration lists. Using sophisticated matching techniques, Pew helps the states process that information—discovering, for instance, that Jane Smith who voted in Virginia in 2008 has now moved to Maryland where she has registered to vote. Virginia can then place her on an "inactive voter" list while Maryland can be sure that her contact information is correct.

The exchange leaves all decisions up to the states. No registration is updated or purged automatically, and each state decides when and how to update its records. No voter is removed from a list without actively confirming that his or her information has changed. But by crosschecking data, states can contact voters who have moved at their new addresses. If all 50 states participated in the data exchange, it would allow elections officials to have a much easier time knowing who should be on the rolls and who shouldn't be, but all 50 states would retain authority over their data sets and voter registration lists.

In addition to saving money and increasing accuracy, these data exchanges also make it much easier to identify and register the millions of Americans who currently cannot vote simply because they haven't filled out the paperwork. The Pew report found that 24 percent of American citizens are currently unregistered—nearly one in four! Inaccurate rolls make it hard to figure out which people remain unregistered. But using the exchange, a state could compare tax records to the list of registered voters and actually see which eligible people still need to fill out a registration form. It's up to the states to decide what to do with such information. But just knowing exactly how many people are not registered would help to show how effective registration strategies are and what might be improved. 

The data-exchange project makes the assumption that the more information a state has, the better. With so much polarization around voting procedures, it's hard to imagine any common ground between a voter registration groups and those pushing for more purges of voter rolls. But for those who are genuinely concerned about the integrity of the process, investing in a better system for voting registration should be a win-win.