more on voter registration

Picking up on Thursday’s discussion

Our voter registration system is inherently messy.  In general, without some sort of a national voter registry, it’s almost impossible to come up with a system that:

a) doesn’t impose massive burdens on people who move a lot*;
b) doesn’t penalize people who don’t vote every year; AND
c) ensures that no one can be registered to vote in more than one place.**

I know that for years and years after I moved away from New York (and registered to vote elsewhere), I remained on the voter rolls in my old precinct.  (My parents still voted there, so could see my name on the list.)  Not sure if my changing my name when I married confused them, or if they just never processed the form that Virginia sent them when I registered here.

I understand the appeal of matching voter registration records against other databases, but the problem is that it’s really easy for perfectly valid registrations to get bumped because people use different variants of their names, or someone can’t read their handwriting, or just plain computer errors.  This is a bigger issue this year than in the past, precisely because in the wake of the 2000 debacle, states were required to clean up their lists.  (As bj said, the issues in 2004 were mostly about the reliability of electronic voting machines, and ballot and machine shortages that led to huge delays in heavily minority areas.)

And the fact is, there are no modern US examples of election fraud happening as the result of widespread false registrations.***  It would be a pretty inefficient way to steal an election, compared to getting election officials to stuff the ballot box (either literally or with electronic tampering), as happened in the 1948 Senate victory by LBJ, which pretty much everyone agrees involved election fraud on both sides.  I’m actually far more worried about the increasing use of mail-in ballots, as that makes it a lot easier for people to either impose social pressure on their friends/family, or to downright buy votes.

So, yeah, when McCain and his surrogates say that improper voter registrations are threatening American democracy, I just don’t buy it. 

* I assume it’s obvious to everyone who reads this why poor people and young people are more likely to move a lot, but if you want me to explain, let me know.  They’re also less likely to have government issued ID.

** Although my friend who is a dual US-Canadian citizen, living in Montreal, assures me that it’s legal for her to vote in both US and Canadian federal elections, although she can’t vote in a US state or local election.

*** Of course there are specific cases of people voting in districts they didn’t live in, or in multiple districts.  And it’s a testimony to most people’s honesty that there aren’t a ton more, given how easy it is to get on the rolls in more than one state.

7 Responses to “more on voter registration”

  1. bj Says:

    It’s interesting to see the difference in attitude between mail in voting in the east v west. Washington is moving towards an all mail-in vote system (not there yet, ’cause some large counties still have polling places) and Oregon already has all mail-in voting and California allow mail-in voting if one chooses. We love mail in voting. It’ so much easier to vote that way, where you can think, be careful, and make sure you’ve filled out your ballot properly. We also like being able to research information when we make our decisions about obscure ballot items.
    People could be pressured — voting in the privacy of your home means that you can’t be protected from that pressure. But, I mostly consider that a theoretical concern, just like theoretical concerns about people voting more than once, or voting in two places. It could happen, but there’s no evidence that it does. To deal with it, I guess I’d try to keep an option for people who are worried about pressure — that there be a place for them to vote in privacy in a publicly protected place.

  2. Elizabeth Says:

    I agree that my concern about fraud in mail-in voting is totally theoretical. And I agree that there are a lot of appealing aspects of it. But I do worry.

  3. jen Says:

    I’m a little mystified why no one considers a national database to be a potential resolution to this problem. As an IT person maybe I’m too quick to see computers as the answer. But honestly, almost all of these issues could be resolved quickly if we were open to a nationwide voter registration database. Current technology could handle it without difficulty (although implementation problems for government systems initiatives are well-known, but I consider those mostly change management and organizational culture problems). Even the privacy issues could IMHO be handled appropriately; certainly as well as privacy issues are dealt with by the banking and credit card industries.

  4. amy Says:

    I wouldn’t want to see that happen. One political party in charge of all the voter data in the country? Centralized? Mm, nope.
    Jen, unfortunately, banking and cc industries don’t do it particularly well either; with each of them it’s only a matter of time before there’s a breach. And then another. The feds would, I expect, contract it out to some friend “with experience” in massive secure databases, but not necessarily in building them from scratch as freestanding enterprises.
    I don’t do online banking, don’t pay bills online, never offer SSN for anything that’s not attached to taxes, and basically keep as low a profile as I can financial-info-wise. I expect I’ll eventually get hit too, but the less your info is floating around in other people’s databases, the less likely it is to spill. I don’t have two years handy for restoring my credit and hocking SSA for a new SSN, and then making sure they don’t screw up my returns because of the change.
    The other thing to keep in mind is that data security costs money on an ongoing basis. If the economy sags (or falls down goes boom), and companies go bust, those tapes will still exist, but who will guard them? If you maintain this data federally, what’s its lifespan, and who guarantees how the data are looked after? Is it a budget priority, or is it something to whittle?
    In any case, my understanding is that the voting problems go well beyond voter reg; there are significant vote-security problems, as well as holes that allow for the appearance of wrongdoing. And these vary by state. Yes, you could probably solve a lot of problems by nationalizing, just to cut down the variety of problems, but I’m guessing the governors would run you through a sawmill if you tried it.

  5. bj Says:

    “I’m a little mystified why no one considers a national database to be a potential resolution to this problem.”
    It’s ’cause there’s a wing of the right (and perhaps conspiratorial left) that’s opposed to any form of nation-wide identification system. So, we end up with half-baked measures that have high failure rates (like using the not quite validated social security data bases for validation of employment eligibility or registration).
    I have a bit of sympathy for the paranoia, because of vision in my head of people asking for “papers” in eastern europe and elsewhere. I would be quite upset at having to carry around my papers all the time. But, half-baked measures are the worst.

  6. amy Says:

    Oh, I don’t know. Half-baked, underfunded measures frequently result in the possibility of being left alone. I like ‘em, on the whole.
    You may recall, a few years back, that our delightful federal government was interested in what library books you were reading, and had high hopes for a national “snitch on your Ay-rab/egghead/annoying/Godless neighbor” program. I don’t really want these people also in charge of whether or not I can vote.

  7. jen Says:

    Amy, I would be interested as to how you would respond to “half-baked, underfunded measures” that you’re such a fan of when they impact your health care. That’s happening right this very minute, I can assure you, and it’s a big part of why the US spends 16% of its GDP on a *lower-performing and less effective* health care system than any other developed country.
    I know this is a lost argument — I just can’t restrain myself from pointing out the obvious. That everyone’s data is already stored in a computer (at the IRS). That whether or not you do on-line banking has nothing to do with how your data is stored (it’s in the bank’s computer regardless). That your ISP or your cel phone provider or the company that maintains the GPS in your car all store tons of data about your daily activities. (We all saw what happened with phone records after 9/11.) IMHO the thing that stands between us and misuse of data is the thing that stopped the library records from being released: human beings who pitched a fit. Librarians have been thwarting requests for reading records since the Eisenhower administration at least. And we can all be thankful for the chief legal counsel at Qwest who, alone among cel phone carriers, refused to release call records post 9/11, rightly calling it unconstitutional.
    IMHO just coming out and saying, we’re tracking thus-and-such data, and we’re taking the following precautions, and having everyone know very clearly what is and isn’t legal related to this data — that’s the way to go. Then you don’t have these under-the-table data requests that IT people are unsure of what to do with. Everyone is educated on the process and knows what is OK and what is not. The answer is more education and more engagement with the issue, not hiding behind what is essentially incompetence.

Leave a Reply


2 + = four