Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Guest opinion: New state voter database still has major problems

Lynden Tribune print edition
By Matthew Cole, Special to the Tribune
February 15, 2006


In classic political fashion, Secretary of State Same Reed spun the arrival of Washington’s version of the statewide voter database as “a breakthrough for the state” in election reform. Don’t do the happy dance just yet.

While Reed’s office claims that the new database is one of the most significant election reforms in recent history, for that claim to have value, the information within the database must be accurate and true. However, the new database grandfathers in scores of deceased, duplicate and non-citizen voters. A quick query revealed that many birthdates are over a century old, many voters have two genders, and many more have multiple active registrations.

If corrected, Reed’s database could be a useful tool for maintaining a clean voter roll, but it cannot create one. In its present form it is useless. An initial scan of the database found serious errors in over 15 percent of the 3.5 million voter registrations. If I do my math correctly, that’s around 525,000 registrations blundered. While it is unclear how long any of these registration have possessed such serious errors, let’s keep in mind that the 2004 governor’s race was decided by only 129 votes. Those numbers don’t do much to console those of us who are deeply concerned about Washington’s electoral integrity.

Furthermore, 458,000 voters statewide are listed in the wrong state legislative district—53,000 of these registrations have no precinct or district information at all! Beyond the 32,000 duplicate voters Reed acknowledges finding, researchers at the Evergreen Freedom Foundation found 11,715 more by checking for people with the same birthdate and identical addresses. Many of these duplicate voters have slightly different names due to either fraud or clerical error.

And that’s not all, scores more have incorrect gender listed, there are hundreds of under-age registrations and thousands more registered deceased people, and non-citizen voters.

Bad registrations aren’t the only problem with the voter database. In the aftermath of the messy 2000 presidential election, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which required all states to create a statewide voter registration database by January 1, 2006. While Reed claims that this database has been in the works years before HAVA, the official database was not released to the public until January 31, 2006, nearly a month after the deadline.

With the current set-up of the database, non-citizens, federal felons and many duplicate registrations will never be found. As it stands, the statewide voter database is hardly the “breakthrough” that it has been hyped to be.

This database has enormous potential for becoming an effective tool in Washington’s elections; but a database is only as good as the data it contains. For the new voter database, that means changing the way elections officials gather the information.

To restore credibility in our state elections system, Reed should place all voters on an inactive status and require them to update their registrations. Voters should be required to provide proof of citizenship and show a photo ID in order to activate their registration. Anyone failing to do so would be able to vote a provisional ballot.

Additionally, we should clarify and strengthen a county auditor’s duty to verify information on a registration form.

Only by conducting a 100 percent new registration that requires voters to register in their legal name, provide proof of citizenship and identification will we be able to trust the voter database.

Right now, the current statewide voter database provides no refuge to those seeking better election practices in Washington. With the 2006 midterms looming, voter data must be correct. Requiring all voters to reactivate their registrations is one of the best ways to make the database accurate. It is a necessary step for restoring integrity to Washington’s elections.

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