Improving Elections By Helping the Voter (Spring 2012 Trust Magazine Article)

Source Organization: Pew Center on the States

Author: Jodi Enda

05/25/2012 - When flooding caused their basement wall to collapse last summer, Lori Fruk and her husband, Steven, moved out of their Lansing, Mich., house and took up temporary residence with her parents six blocks away. Fruk filled out a change-of-address card with the Post Office and turned her attention to salvaging her home.

Then she got kicked off the voter rolls.

Although she didn’t apply for one, Fruk received a new voter registration card from the Lansing city clerk’s office. Two days later, she received a cancellation notice—at her parents’ Lansing home—saying that she no longer lived in the city. (To add insult to injury, that notice contained an incorrect address for her parents, but was delivered nonetheless.)

“I contacted the city clerk to ask why they took it upon themselves to change my address,” Fruk said. “They said there was a precinct change, so they pulled the change-of-address cards and they assumed it was permanent.”

Fruk persuaded the city to re-register her using her permanent address at her flooded house. But by that time, the state changed her driver’s license to her “new” address at her parents’ house.

Ultimately, Fruk’s situation was resolved—though she hasn’t tested it by voting. Still, it lays bare a broader problem faced by cities and states and citizens across the country.

The nation’s voter rolls contain names of millions of people who are not eligible to cast ballots and often omit eligible voters who have registered. The result is confusion at the polls, and significant and unnecessary expenses to local, county and state governments as elections officials grapple with outdated, usually paper-based systems.

Earlier this year, the Pew Center on the States’ Election Initiatives report, Inaccurate, Costly and Inefficient, found that approximately 24 million voter registrations in the United States—one of every eight—are no longer valid or contain significant inaccuracies. The report, which generated widespread attention, also revealed that:

  • Nearly 2 million dead people remain on the rolls
  • About 2.75 million people are registered to vote in more than one state (and more than 70,000 in three or more states)
  • Some 12.7 million records are outdated
  • Approximately 12 million records contain incorrect addresses, indicating that either voters have moved or that their information was recorded incorrectly
Add to that the fact that one quarter of eligible voters—at least 51 million adults—are not on the rolls at all and it becomes clear that the nation’s registration system has fallen short. Many who run the system have reached the same conclusion.

“We’ve strongly felt that there had to be a better way to do this,” said Linda Lamone, Maryland’s administrator of elections.

Now there is. Elections officials, policy makers, researchers, and engineers from around the country worked intensively with Pew to design a new, far-reaching program aimed at improving  registration in ways that will simplify the process for voters, reduce inaccuracies, lessen the workload and save taxpayers millions of dollars. Starting this year, at least eight states will participate in a new data center, built by Pew and run by the participating states, to enable elections officials to share information that will help them determine whether registrations are accurate and allow them to reach out to people who are eligible to vote but have not registered.

In addition, Pew has spearheaded a project that will make it easier to find a polling place and to get basic ballot information, online or by smartphone. And the organization has worked in recent years with states to enact laws that will help ensure that Americans who are abroad—especially those in the armed forces—can exercise their right to vote.

“Historically, there have been large numbers of military and overseas voters who didn’t receive their ballots, couldn’t return their ballots in time and didn’t have information necessary to help them vote,” said David Becker, director of the Election Initiatives. “We at Pew have long considered it a moral imperative to make sure those fighting and working for us overseas have full access to our shared democracy.”

Taken together, the three programs will go a long way toward ensuring that Americans who are eligible to vote can do so, that the process is not overly cumbersome or expensive and that it operates with integrity. The programs will be in place, in full or in part, in time for the November elections.

A Focus on Voters

A month after the last presidential race, in November 2008, Pew convened a conference that reviewed the part of election results most people ignore. Voting in America: The Road Ahead focused not on the candidates, but on the voters. About 250 people, including state and local elections officials, campaign operatives, Republican and Democratic party representatives, academics and journalists came together in the Newseum, in Washington, D.C., to assess the effectiveness of state elections systems.

Two speakers who captured the crowd’s attention were from opposing campaigns. Bob Bauer and Trevor Potter, attorneys for presidential contenders Barack Obama and John McCain, respectively, agreed on one thing: “The biggest problem in terms of operating their campaigns and reaching out to voters was that voter registration was out of date,” Becker recalled. “Because the rolls were in such bad shape, it was very difficult for their campaigns to engage with voters.”

What’s more, because of problems with registrations, an estimated 2.2 million people who were eligible to vote could not cast ballots in the 2008 general election, Pew’s Election Initiatives reported.

At the conference, elections officials from six states representing both major political parties concurred with the presidential candidates’ lawyers that “voter registration was the single biggest problem,” Becker said. “It was incredibly inefficient, and inaccurate.”

A Mobile Society

The culprit, Pew’s study showed, is not intentional fraud, but a clash between a 21st-century mobile society and a 19th-century, paper-based registration system.

As many as one in eight Americans moved during the last two federal election years, in 2008 and 2010. Young people, military families and residents of communities that were particularly hard-hit by the recession were even more transient, the analysis showed.

When people move between cities or between states, their voter registration doesn’t move with them. They might register to vote in their new location, but rarely is the previous registration canceled or their address updated.

Handwriting and typographical errors also can have outsize impact on voter rolls. Often, for example, people register to vote when they obtain or renew their driver’s licenses. They fill out paper forms by hand, sometimes with sloppy script. Clerks can misread them or type them incorrectly, particularly during the mad rush that occurs when large numbers of people register to vote in the weeks before every major election. If names or addresses are recorded improperly, voters don’t receive mailings on where their polling place is. Political parties have trouble contacting them. Election workers must struggle to confirm whether they may legally cast ballots.

In Maryland in 2006, thousands of people were effectively disenfranchised because they thought, incorrectly, that the Motor Vehicle Administration had submitted voter registration forms for them. “Most people thought if they were asked if they wanted to register to vote that it was being taken care of. So they never returned the voter registration application completed,” said Lamone, the state elections administrator.

On Election Day, such innocent errors snowball. Some people show up at the wrong polling places. Problems with the lists can lead to long lines and delays. And some are relegated to casting provisional ballots, which may or may not be counted.

A Data-Sharing Plan

All those things happened in Washington State in 2004, when Democrat Christine Gregoire won the closest gubernatorial race in U.S. history. During a two-week hearing to settle the contest, witnesses for both Democrats and Republicans testified that the election was rife with mistakes, including provisional ballots that were not verified properly before being counted, ballots that outnumbered voters, discrepancies in reconciling poll books, and ballots that were somehow overlooked, according to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. In the end, following two recounts and a contentious court case, the election was decided by 133 votes.

“That’s what made us realize we’ve really got to tighten up,” said Secretary of State Sam Reed.

Washington is one of the eight states that have committed to participating in a plan to share voter registration data this year, and another four might join them, Becker said. Through a data center that Pew is creating and that the states will operate, elections officials will be able to access government data to determine whether registration forms are correct. Sources of information will include the state agencies that issue driver’s licenses and state identification cards, the Social Security Administration and the U.S. Postal Service.

Reed said the program will help his state address two problems: duplicate registrations among residents who move between Washington and other states (or who summer in Washington and winter in warmer states), and outreach to eligible voters.

“We knew there were a lot of people eligible to vote who just weren’t getting registered or being asked to register,” he said. “We tried all kinds of outreach, including voter pamphlets. When the Pew voter modernization effort came up, we jumped at it.”

So did officials in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia; Colorado, Nevada and Utah; and Washington’s southern neighbor, Oregon—three groups of contiguous states in which people regularly move back and forth.

“We believe those states will likely see their ability to identify voters who have moved and who have died greatly enhanced, thus making their rolls cleaner, making sure voters receive election information at their correct address, and also identifying eligible voters that are not on the rolls,” Becker said. “It will save a lot of money and lead to more accurate and complete lists.”

Voters in most of those states also will be able to register online, which is easier for them, less expensive for governments and more accurate because no handwriting is involved. Maricopa County, Ariz., which includes Phoenix, has already shifted to online registration, a simple move that saved millions of dollars as expenses dropped by 96 percent—from 83 cents to 3 cents per registration.

Online registration will reduce the need for third-party organizations, such as political campaigns or nonprofits, to set up tables in grocery stores or knock on doors to register voters. State elections officials said such outside registrations can create extra challenges and expense.

“You find a lot of mistakes, you find a lot of legibility issues, you find a lot of strain on election offices because they turn the forms in right before the election. You have to hire temporary folks who perhaps don’t have the experience of reading voter registration cards very well,” said Donald Palmer, secretary of Virginia’s elections board.

Elections officials said the new system will be particularly helpful in reducing the number of outdated registrations caused by moves or deaths, and will save them money on mailings.

Case in point: Because of redistricting, Virginia had to mail election information to 4 million registered voters in 2011, said Justin Riemer, deputy elections secretary. “Several hundred thousand were returned undeliverable,” he said. “We knew right there lots of folks had moved or died.”

Elections officials also will be aided by another Pew-designed program, the Voting Information Project, which worked with 19 states and the District of Columbia in 2010. VIP, as it is known, draws on new technology to provide information. Instead of calling their local elections board, people will be able to find voting information via search engines, social media, mobile apps and online news sites.

Pew is working with Google, Microsoft and other technology firms to standardize information from elections offices in more than 35 states and make it available to voters for the 2012 elections. The information was available on 300 websites in 2010, a number expected to increase to 500 this year, allowing users to enter their address into Google’s polling-place finder and immediately learn where they should go to vote.

“Most elections agencies don’t have a lot of money. We get literally thousands of requests from the public for data. If I try to create a report to disseminate all this information, it’s very challenging,” said Marc Burris, chief information officer for the North Carolina State Board of Elections. “The allure of the VIP is I put my data out there and anyone can access it.”

Using VIP, Burris is also developing new tools that along with recent changes in the state’s election laws will improve voting opportunities for military personnel and their families, as well as other North Carolinians living temporarily overseas.

A Break for Military Voters

Members of the military were twice as likely as other Americans to experience voter registration problems in 2008, Pew has found. The Congressional Research Service surveyed seven states after the election and learned that on average nearly 28 percent of military and overseas ballots were rejected or returned.

Why? Half the states and the District of Columbia did not provide enough time for troops to request, receive and return ballots, according to a comprehensive Pew analysis of voting by members of the military stationed overseas conducted shortly after that election.

In response to these problems, Congress passed the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act (MOVE) in October 2009. The law adopted many of Pew’s recommendations, including requirements to mail ballots at least 45 days before a federal election, provide for the electronic transmission of empty absentee ballots, eliminate notarization requirements and expand acceptance of the Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot as a backup measure.

Since then, Pew has been helping states update their own laws to comply with the MOVE Act for federal elections and to adopt similar legislation to cover state and local elections.

Texas State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte said she could not have persuaded fellow legislators to amend their complicated schedule of primaries and runoff elections if Pew had not provided data showing how the calendar curtailed the voting rights of service members from 17 Texas bases who were stationed overseas.  “The objective is to let those folks who are defending the country have the ability to vote. The Pew data added more ‘want’ to the ‘want to,’” said Van de Putte.

Texas was one of 47 states plus the District of Columbia to enact reforms in 2010 or 2011.

“We need to say, ‘No excuses any more. We’ll take care of it,’” Van de Putte said. “You return the ballot, we’ll see that it’s counted.”


Jodi Enda, former White House correspondent for Knight-Ridder Newspapers, is a Washington-based writer. She last wrote for Trust about Pew’s efforts to improve drug safety.

(All Fields are required)