Washington, DC- Seven months from now, states face the deadline for the most complex and arguably most significant mandate of federal election reform – the requirement for statewide voter registration databases.
A newly completed survey by electionline.org found that each state is approaching the registration requirement differently – sometimes in significant ways. According to the Help America Vote Act, all states must have in place a database that is “single, uniform, official, centralized, interactive computerized” and administered “at the state level” by Jan. 1, 2006.
“Assorted Rolls: Statewide Voter Registration Databases Under HAVA,” electionline.org's 11th Election Reform Briefing, reveals that no two statewide databases will be alike. The language of federal reform, while seemingly specific on its face, nonetheless left states considerable room for interpretation.
“The new statewide voter lists should be cleaner, more up to date, and help elections run more smoothly,” said Sean Greene, electionline.org's research director. “The HAVA mandate gave states a great deal of leeway in how to create these lists. However, the flexibility states have in implementation has led to questions of whether some databases will be more up to date and accurate than others.”
The survey of 51 state election directors (including the District of Columbia) found that 38 states opted for databases that could be considered “top down,” meaning a unified list maintained by the state with data supplied by localities. Information in these top-down databases would be provided in real time, allowing county and city election officials to access voter information from each other as it becomes available.
Six states chose “bottom-up” lists, where counties and cities retain their own registration rolls and submit information to a statewide compilation of voter information at regular intervals, typically once a day.
Whatever the structure of the database itself, the survey also found that the responsibility for removing voters from rolls will continue to be a local endeavor. Only four out of the 29 states that described their voter list purges said the state initiated the effort. In the other states, local voter registrars will not only validate registration applications and feed information on to the state, but will also decide when a record should be removed.
“Assorted Rolls” also notes that database interactivity between states – a particularly helpful feature as Americans become more mobile, especially in urban and suburban areas that straddle state borders – has some support among election officials but remains only an idea. Hurdles are both technological (the compatibility of the new voter lists) and legislative (some states will have to enact bills allowing the sharing of data).
Survey results also revealed a divide in state plans for database construction, including vastly differing expenditures on the lists. While Pennsylvania will spend nearly $20 million for a multi-functional database that also serves as an election management tool, Utah and South Dakota will use in-house know-how to construct lists that cost less than $1 million each.
Who will build databases varies as well and plays a significant role in the cost of the list. Twenty states have or are constructing databases on their own, either tweaking systems already in place or creating new ones. Twenty-eight have hired private contractors from a list of companies that includes Covansys Corp., Diebold Election Systems, Election Systems and Software, Saber Consulting and Accenture.
Home-state advantage played some role in private companies scoring contracts, the survey noted, with Texas, Kansas, Oregon, Nebraska, Indiana and others selecting vendors who are based or have offices in-state.
The variations in state strategy for meeting the database mandate is not surprising, Greene said.
“The database requirement, like other HAVA requirements, gave states a mandate but allowed them to choose their own way to meet it,” Greene said. “This was intentional – the federal government wanted to leave many election reform decisions to the states.”