The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) requires states to create and maintain electronic statewide databases of all registered voters. The purpose of that provision is to ensure that states keep voter information current and accessible, so that only legitimate voters will be permitted to cast ballots
With the advent of HAVA, a number of states have decided to compare databases in an effort to cancel out-of-date registrations. The usual scenario is a voter who moves to a new state and registers to vote, without informing the first state’s election office of the change in address. (Unlike utilities, credit cards, and friends, the Board of Elections is not high on anyone’s notification list.) And while there is nothing wrong with the states’ information-sharing in itself, complications arise from what the states do with the information they obtain.
Some of these states’ election officials seem to think that a match between two states’ databases—in other words, if it looks as if the same voter registered in Kansas in 1999 and then in Nebraska in 2008-- justifies dropping the voter from the Kansas rolls. There are two problems with this procedure. First, it’s unreliable. Second, it’s illegal.
Interstate Matching Is Unreliable
The reliability of a match process varies with the number and quality of data fields matched: the more information you have on Susan Smith from South Dakota and Susan Smith from Minnesota, the more assurance you have that they are indeed the same person. Unfortunately, most states are comparing only first name, last name, and date of birth in interstate matches, a process that leads to many false matches.
NVRA Sets the Rules
Fortunately, the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993 provides precisely the safeguards that are needed to prevent wrongful disenfranchisement. Section 8 of NVRA requires that removal of the voter from the voter roll on the ground of a change of residence can only occur (a) if the voter confirms in writing that she has changed address, or (b) if she fails to respond to a forwardable notice and does not vote or appear to vote in the next two federal general elections. In other words, the law requires both an attempt by the state to communicate with the voter directly and the passage of two federal elections from the date the notice was sent in order to be satisfied that she has moved elsewhere. Nothing in HAVA supersedes the protocol provided by Section 8, and failure to abide by it is a clear-cut violation of the law.
The interstate database matching seems to be a growing trend, and many of these states’ procedures appear to be manifestly inconsistent with the mandates of the NVRA list maintenance provisions. Project Vote and other advocacy groups are negotiating with them to conform to the law.