Election 2008

Patti Longmire/AP

Voter Registration Database Errors Could Freeze Out Voters

September 22, 2008 03:48 PM
by Anne Szustek
This November’s election marks the inaugural use of statewide voter databases. But with the push to get them running, potentially disenfranchising mistakes have emerged.

Algorithms, Transposed Numbers, Misspellings Nullify Ballots

The Help America Vote Act of 2002 was put in place in a move to calm voters fearing disenfranchisement at the hands of antiquated voting methods. With the new law came investment—millions of dollars worth of state tax money—targeted at installing new vote-casting machines meant to streamline statewide electoral databases and balloting in one fell swoop.

But many voters may not get far enough to use the new machines. As states gear up for Election 2008 an array of issues has surfaced in database management—some resulting from software glitches, others due to human error.

One key concern is identity verification. Illegible handwriting, incongruities with driver’s license records and changing last names from marriage could result in mismatches in voter records, preventing people from casting their ballot.

Under the Help America Vote Act of 2002, the final decision on how to judge matches between identification offered and information on the record rests with the states. Some states require, as Wired puts it, a “substantial match” with driver’s license records, but an exact match with Social Security Administration data. But other states, like Wisconsin, require that every detail matches, including first and last names.

This is where those with hyphenated last names or those who go by their middle names run into problems.

In Wisconsin, where the state voter database went live last month, officials ran a test of 20,000 names versus records from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles. Some 20 percent of names did not match up, including four members of the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board, the group responsible for the test run. “Thomas Cane, the board’s chairman and a retired judge, failed because he was listed by his full name, R. Thomas Cane, in his driver’s record,” writes Wired.
The Election Assistance Commission, a federal oversight body, tells individual states to have human judgment take precedence over what’s generated by the machine’s algorithm. Kay Stimson, a spokesperson for the National Association of Secretaries of State, told Wired that she has little if any doubt that databases will be up to snuff for this year’s election.

Recent snafus leave some uncertain as to how computerized voting systems will stack up this November, however. In Denver in 2006, some 20,000 voters wound up not voting after Sequoia Voting Systems’ programs kept crashing. Security has been another issue. A review of Florida’s voting systems the same year show that access levels for different users had not been installed, and had no mechanism for checking user logs.

Voters have the right to ask for a provisional ballot if polling judges question their eligibility to vote; however, issuing and tallying rates have been disparate.

In so-called swing states like Florida, these problems can go beyond a question of irritation to one of allegations of flawed elections. The Wall Street Journal points out that the biggest problems with voting systems have been in “the half-dozen swing states that could decide the election.” Florida is among the states that require an exact data match between driver’s license and state voter database records, which could lead to problems among newly registered voters, whom statistics show tend to vote Democratic in the state.

Absentee voters and college students looking to register near their campuses could face some roadblocks as well, especially given that most out-of-state students keep their home state driver’s licenses the duration of their college years.

Background: Voting machines vs. the political machine

Jurisdictions across the country have come out and announced that their voting systems have programming errors that cannot be fixed by Nov. 4. Premier Election Solutions, the company contracted out to produce touch-screen voting machines for half of the counties in Ohio, has confessed that later stages of testing on its software revealed a programming glitch that can cause votes not to get recorded.
"We are indeed distressed that our previous analysis of this issue was in error," David Byrd, the president of Premier, wrote in a letter to Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner that was quoted by the Columbus Dispatch.

After an investigation earlier this year showed that votes were dropped in 11 counties using the touch-screen technology, Brunner plans to sue Premier to reclaim millions in tax dollars.

Touch-screen voting machines are but one of many tools introduced into America’s polling booths following the promulgation of the Help America Vote Act of 2002, among the stated goals of which was to eliminate punch-card ballots, blamed for the infamous “hanging chads” in Florida during the 2000 presidential election.

Touch-screen machines became de rigueur among voting booth reformers, despite their obvious shortcomings. A January article in The New York Times Magazine details Florida’s electronic vote tabulating woes: “In hundreds of instances, the result has been precisely the opposite: they fail unpredictably, and in extremely strange ways; voters report that their choices 'flip' from one candidate to another before their eyes; machines crash or begin to count backward; votes simply vanish.”

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