Sept. 17, 2008— -- Electronic voting machines have been the focus of much controversy the last few years. But another election technology has received little scrutiny yet could create numerous problems and disenfranchise thousands of voters in November, election experts say.
This year marks the first time that new, statewide, centralized voter-registration databases will be used in a federal election in a number of states.
The databases were mandated in the 2002 Help America Vote Act, which required all election districts in a state or U.S. territory to consolidate their lists into a single database electronically accessible to every election office in the state or territory.
But the databases, some created by the same companies that make electronic voting machines, aren't federally tested or certified and some have been plagued by missed deadlines, rushed production schedules, cost overruns, security problems, and design and reliability issues.
Last year, in Larimer County, Colorado, election workers got an error message when they tried to access the state's database to process absentee ballots, and had to log off for 20 minutes. In a mock election four months ago, clerks in other counties had trouble accessing the database from polling locations. Those who could connect said the system was sluggish.
Election officials in several counties said they didn't trust the system, and planned to load the database to county computers and use printed poll books on Election Day rather than access the central database in real time.
"The voter-registration databases are an underlying part of the voting technology revolution that has taken place in this country that has been the least noticed," says Kim Alexander, president and founder of the California Voter Foundation. "We don't know how much of a problem (they've) been across the country. My guess is that there have been technical problems with statewide databases all across the country that have gone unreported."
This year, during primaries in several states, longtime voters phoned a national voter hotline complaining their party affiliation had changed from Democrat or Republican to unaffiliated, preventing some from casting ballots in states without open primaries. Others complained they weren't on the voter roll, though they'd lived and voted at the same location for years. One Maryland woman said the birth date in her voter record was several decades off her real age. Others were listed as "inactive," although they'd voted in the previous federal election. And one woman who said she voted in 2006 was told she wasn't registered and couldn't cast a ballot. Election officials told her the voter ID number she had belonged to a man.
But election experts say the real concern is how states are conducting database matches of new voters under HAVA.
The law requires each voter to have a unique identifier. Since 2004, new registration applicants have had to provide a driver's license number or the last four digits of a Social Security number to register (voters who don't have them are assigned a unique number by the state). States are required to try to authenticate the numbers with motor vehicle records and the Social Security Administration database.
But databases are prone to errors such as misspellings and transposed numbers, and applicants are prone to make mistakes or write illegibly on applications. The Social Security Administration has acknowledged that matches between its database and voter-registration records have yielded a 28.5 percent error rate.
States vary in how they treat applicants whose records don't match, and experts say rules in some states could prevent thousands of eligible voters from casting ballots or having their votes counted in November. Those who don't match in Oregon, for example, can cast a ballot, but their vote for president or any other federal race on a ballot won't be counted. There are currently about 9,500 voters in Oregon who fall into this category, but a state spokesman says matching issues will be resolved with most of them before November so they can vote in federal races. Fewer than 500 voters were affected by this during the state's primary.