Weekly Voting Rights News Update
By Erin Ferns
This week the Associated Press would have you believe that Texas is reliving its Wild West days, complete with outlaw voter rolls that are packed with felons and the deceased. Peppered with urgent language ("The auditor's report warns that improvement is needed...") and frantic headlines ("State's Voter Registration Rolls Need Policing"), the AP and local news outlets conjure images of wild-eyed ex-cons assaulting the integrity of Texas’ electoral system.
However, the real issue is not that .4% of Texas voting rolls are potentially ineligible to vote or even whether or not any of that .4% managed to vote (they did not, AP reports). Simply put, the real issue is list maintenance policies and procedures that allow for the removal of legitimate voters through hasty or poorly-executed purges
Tuesday, the state auditor's report examining Texas' voter rolls for May's election was "widely distributed," according to Kelley Shannon of the Associated Press. The report compared data with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and the Bureau of Vital Statistics.
"It found that 49,049, or 0.4 percent, of 12.37 million registered voters may have been ineligible, including 23,114 possible felons and 23,576 voters who may be deceased. There were duplicate records for 2,359 voters," Shannon wrote.
"Auditors did not find any cases of ineligible voters casting ballots," the AP report said.
"Although the Secretary of State's Office has processes to identify many ineligible voters and remove them from the State's voter registration list, improvements can be made," the auditor's report said with decidedly less urgency than the news headlines and leads. The Secretary of State's Office has agreed with many of the recommendations "and said many of the issues in question have been resolved or are in the process of being corrected," Shannon wrote.
Under the Help American Vote Act (HAVA) and the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), states are responsible for developing specific standards for implementing a list maintenance program that is transparent, consistent and non-discriminatory. A lack of clear and specific criteria for performing list maintenance programs has resulted in inconsistent standards within states for federal elections.
Shannon's report differed from accounts printed in the Houston Chronicle and local broadcast adaptations of the AP story, which ignored the complexity of maintaining voter rolls without removing legitimate voters. First, Shannon reported the .4% in question are not proven ineligible yet: "Agency spokesman Scott Haywood noted even though the auditor identified voters who are potentially ineligible, it does not mean they are actually ineligible."
Further, "while it's important to remove ineligible voters from the state's computer system, 'it is equally important to make sure eligible voters are not removed unfairly,' Haywood said in a written statement."
Although states are not mandated to notify voters of their removal from the official voter list for felony conviction or death, NVRA does actually require notice be given to those who will be removed because of a change of address. Voters may not be removed from the list because they have moved unless they have either requested removal in writing or failed to respond to a notice of removal AND not voted in two federal elections. Under the unamended law, "election officials who were notified by the U.S. Postal Service that a voter had moved could update the voter's records and contact the voter at the new address.
This lack of clarity in list maintenance regulations make state voter rolls vulnerable to both inadvertent and purposeful disenfranchisement of legitimate voters with the latter lending itself to partisan mischief. We first saw this fuzzy interpretation in 2000: "Overbroad database matching criteria of names with a felon database were used in Florida before the 2000 election and resulted in the denial of the rote to vote to thousands of Florida voters," according to this Project Vote report.
To further illustrate the broad interpretations of list maintenance requirements, we can look at recent problems in Kentucky and Washington. In Kentucky, election officials concluded that voters whose names later appeared on the voter databases of near-by states, Tennessee and South Carolina, had implicitly requested removal from the Kentucky voter list. In Washington, the Republican Secretary of State successfully lobbied the Legislature to pass a strict "No Match, No Vote" policy as part of a broad HAVA-implementation and election reform bill. The rigid list-matching rules required exact matches between voter registration, Social Security and Department of Motor Vehicle databases.
In both cases, Project Vote took action that helped end the practices. Notably, in Washington we led the coalition that helped the state adopt more flexible data-matching rules.
By passing legislation or regulations that encourage eligible voters to stay registered and by opening the process to public scrutiny, states can short-circuit behind-the-scenes attempts to manipulate the voter rolls for partisan advantage, avoid the disenfranchisement of eligible citizens, and begin to restore public confidence in election results.
As we embark on 2008, the mechanics of elections are gaining a higher profile in the media and in the minds of actors in electoral politics. Smart, well-managed list maintenance procedures are vital to maintaining accurate voter rolls and broad knowledge and understanding of them creates the kind of transparency that promotes trust. The recent new stories, on the other hand, promote hysteria and overshadow the facts, obscuring the real and pervasive issue of actual (not possible) eligible voters getting thrown off of voter rolls due to bad list maintenance policies. Though we are quick to acknowledge that we do not have deep expertise in Texas’ list maintenance procedures, any state should feel it has done its duty if its voter rolls show only a .4% error rate. Particularly a state with more than 12 million registered voters in its database.
"Maintaining Current and Accurate Voting Lists."Project Vote.
In Other News:
"LANSING — An independent group that angered some Michigan voters by sending voter registration forms to their pets or to wrong addresses apologized today for the mistakes." Read more of this Associated Press report here.
"One of the issues left hanging as Congress is off on recess is the Holt bill to require voter-verifiable paper trails on all voting machines. Despite a robust number of co-sponsors, the bill remains mired in controversy, in part because of the opposition of sizable numbers of election officials who, after having sunk a bundle of money into touch-screen machines after the passage of the Help America Vote Act, are not inclined to change (and are also worried about deadlines and technical glitches)." Read more of this Nov. 26 Roll Call article here.
Erin Ferns is a Research and Policy Analyst with Project Vote’s Strategic Writing and Research Department (SWORD).