U.S. voter databases in disarray in many states

Scores of Democratic and Republican party officials continue to hunt for any shred of evidence that fraudulent activity might have swayed the razor-thin margin separating the two top candidates in last week’s presidential election.

In this day and age, the officials might have hoped that technology could prevent dead, multiply registered or otherwise ineligible voters from casting a ballot. And they might have expected that frequently updated information technology systems would ensure that properly registered voters could find their names on the rolls when they arrived to vote.

Instead, political observers will find that voters are registered and tracked by a patchwork quilt of technology systems that can vary as wildly as the weather in different parts of the country. Not only will they find no movement afoot to create a national voter registry, but they also will see states struggling to establish and update their own centralized voter registries.

The federal government grants each state control over its own voter registration systems. The most recent Federal Election Commission (FEC) study, from 1997, showed that just 10 states had real-time, online access to a centralized voter site. At the other extreme, 16 states had no statewide database at all. A Computerworld survey of a dozen states last week showed that while some have made progress, many others are still struggling to update their IT systems.

“Clearly, there are a lot of things that could get fixed and probably should get fixed,” said Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services Inc., the Washington-based consultancy that the FEC commissioned to conduct the 1997 study. “One of the big problems is that many jurisdictions don’t have a lot of money.”

Wisconsin, one of the states with no centralized registry, allows voters to register on Election Day. Last Tuesday in Madison, more than 50,000 people took advantage, forcing the city to print out extra voter registration cards, noted Ray Risher, the city’s director of revenue.

There were no on-site computers or master lists to check names. But Fisher said the state was more concerned with making it as easy as possible for people to register than it was with the possibility that someone may have registered and voted twice.

“It would be nice to have a computer system, but I don’t think we could afford the price of the equipment,” Fisher said. “Plus, we are dealing with poll workers, many of whom are elderly and do this as part of their civic duty. Most would not be familiar with the operation of a computer.”

Florida – where the votes are still being counted, with the whole election potentially hanging in the balance – has a centralized voter database in Tallahassee. A state law that took effect Jan. 1, 1998, established the database. But 67 of Florida’s counties aren’t connected to the central repository via the Internet or any private network, and updates aren’t done in real time.

“You’re talking about a lot of money to put computers and networking [technology] in all the offices of the supervisors [of elections],” said Kurt Browning, the election supervisor in Pasco County, Fla., for the past 20 years. “It was like $15 million to $17 million.”

And election supervisors weren’t exactly enthusiastic about the idea, according to Browning. The supervisors are independently elected constitutional officers in Florida, and “there were some supervisors that got their backs bent out of shape when they found out Tallahassee wanted to create a central voter-registration database,” said Browning, adding that he favored the idea.

Instead, the state opted for a centralized voter file that cost far less. Updates from the counties are now required on a quarterly basis, said Wesley Wilcox, a systems administrator for St. Lucie County’s supervisor of elections.

Various checks are made to ensure that residents are eligible to vote, but that doesn’t catch every problem. St. Lucie County does birthday and Social Security number checks and periodically sends voting records to be “cleaned” against a national change-of-address database.

“They come out with a probability of death [as in], ‘There’s a 75 per cent chance this person is dead,’ ” Wilcox said. “Typically, we don’t act on that stuff. Most are notifications from a spouse or relative.”

Even states with available real-time online systems face challenges. Texas gives its 254 counties the option to use its Texas Voter Registration System (TVRS). A total of 135 counties that don’t have local systems avail themselves of TVRS, using client software that connects to the database via the Internet or a terminal server.

Yet scores of larger counties in Texas keep their own voter registration systems and update TVRS using tapes or file transfer protocol files. Others connect to TVRS using client software for updates. And some communities slip through the cracks. The rural desert county of Loving, near El Paso, has more registered voters than residents.

“Texas gives out money based on the number of voters you’ve got. It’s basically a county-by-county system,” said Jim Edwards, systems manager for the secretary of state. “The places like Loving County that need [money] the most get it the least.” Edwards added, “One of the problems we’ve got is we need to standardize.”

The lack of uniform standards sometimes can prevent states with updated technology from making all the checks they might like. Tennessee has a central voter registry that’s accessible online, but there’s no system in place to cross-reference voter lists with Tennessee’s eight bordering states.

“We would like to be able to match with them, but the problem comes down to Social Security numbers and whether we can get that information,” said Steve Griffy, assistant director of information systems for Tennessee’s secretary of state, noting that some neighboring states don’t request voters’ Social Security numbers.

Right now, some states can’t even settle on a uniform format for voter registration. Ron Michaelson, executive director of Illinois’ State Board of Elections, said a uniform format “has been required by law for 15 years but has not been done due to lack of funding.”

Another source of problems for Illinois and other states has been the National Voter Registration Act, better known as the “motor voter” law, which lets voters register by mail or when they get their driver’s licenses. Because the law prohibits voting districts from purging inactive voters from the rolls, they are left with “rolls that are not as clean as they used to be,” Michaelson said.

Even the intended benefits of the motor voter law aren’t always realized. For example, Virginia encountered a problem with residents who thought they had registered at the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) only to discover that they weren’t registered when they arrived at the polls.

Technology could help solve that problem if applications could be routed electronically from the DMV to the Virginia Voter Registration System. But right now, under Virginia law, the signature must be original and can’t be scanned or digitized. Virginia’s Board of Elections has been pushing for electronic signatures to be made legal, but it has had no luck so far.

That’s also true for anyone hoping that a national voter registry might bring some order to the chaos. “I think sometime we will have a real-time federal registry,” said Browning, 42. “I hope I live long enough to see it.”