By Liza Porteus Viana | Colorado Watchdog
Colorado and six other states have made great strides in cleaning up their voter rolls in an initiative that could help other states, as well.
Colorado, Washington, Nevada, Utah, Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware this year joined the Pew Center on the States to create the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) in an effort to scrub voter lists of those who don’t belong, and to make sure all who are eligible to register to vote are in the system.
“It’s in kind of Phase 1 but even in Phase 1 we’ve been able to see big benefits,” said David Becker, director of election initiatives at Pew Center on the States. States “were able to build some efficiencies … [and to] identify data errors in their voter records as a result of this.”
Pew built ERIC, a nonprofit entity, and the data center that drives it last summer. States control the database. They’ve already uploaded information from voter registrations, motor vehicle lists, and changes-of-address from the US Postal Service.
“For this election, they’ve been able to identify people on the motor vehicle lists who are potentially eligible … so mailings can go out to them in the most efficient way,” Becker said. Pew also recommends states automate motor voter registration processes and move to online registration.
Colorado, for example, was able to identify voters not yet registered, and launched an advertising campaign to encourage online registration so that they may cast their vote Nov. 6. This system also eliminates the need for third-party registration groups, “which Colorado is full of right now,” Becker said, and increases accuracy of data, since voters enter the data online themselves instead of through an intermediary. Colorado has been “exceptional” in terms of reviewing voter data, helping to ensure the quality of outputs from ERIC, and with technical assistance, Becker said.
“With the database, we can better track where people move, if they are deceased or passed away in our state,” said Richard Coolidge, spokesman for Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler. “Because [without it] they are being left on the voter rolls year after year.”
The most common registration problems thus far have been data errors in certain files, such as a wrong birth date. In a report released earlier this year, Pew found that approximately 24 million voter registrations in the United States — or one of every eight — are no longer valid or have significant inaccuracies.
“What states are already seeing is they’re able to build up the integrity in their lists,” Becker said. “In subsequent stages, they’re going to get much more robust data.”
Coolidge said Colorado has learned “quite a bit” from this process. “We knew that there are errors in the system,” he said, but “we’re really starting to see … we’re facing issues that our voter registration rolls aren’t as clean as they should be.”
For example, ERIC helped Colorado identify 700,000 Coloradans this year to target with mailings, inviting them to register via the states’ online voter registration system. The state received some calls from people saying they were already registered. But in many instances, driver’s license numbers didn’t match voter rolls, thus the discrepancy.
“We’re starting to see those errors compounded in our voter rolls,” Coolidge said. “We’re getting wrong driver’s license entered in, Social Security numbers not accurate, names messed up. We’re constantly trying to improve our rolls and this project with Pew is starting to help clean up those inaccuracies.
“We’re continuing to lay the groundwork before we get into data-sharing.”
Although federal law prohibits the systematic removal of ineligible voters from voter lists 90 days within a federal primary or general election, states were able to get voters registered accurately if there were mistakes already on the books.
About 12 more states have indicated interested in ERIC. Pew won’t say which states, but expects to move on them after the presidential election.
“This is a crazy time for election officials,” Becker said. “They’re not thinking much past Nov. 6. …[But] I think a lot of states are going to be looking to have access to the best tools they can to have the records up-to-date.”
Just moving to online registration results in great cost savings to states. Arizona, for example, says paper registration costs about 83 cents per person to process, but only 3 cents per online registration. That doesn’t include any additional costs such as provisional ballots or other expenditures. Colorado was able to save money with online registration by also not having to hire temporary workers to help slog through all of the paper submissions.
The hope is that many more states will voluntarily join ERIC. Each state pays a one-time initiation fee of $25,000; annual ERIC maintenance cost is about $500,000 year, which is divided among participating states. More states will make the system not just cheaper, but more effective.
“This works best when it’s voluntary and it also makes the states have an incentive,” Becker said. “The more states that come in, the better the data quality … and also, the less expensive it is.”
Coolidge said it would also be helpful if all states eventually had access to federal government records to scrub voter rolls of non-citizens or other illegal registrations.
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