Glitches in state databases could turn away voters

Eligible voters in Florida may arrive at the polls tomorrow and find that they are ineligible to cast ballots because of the strict requirements for inclusion in the state's new database of registered voters.

Tomorrow marks the first time that Florida, along with many other states, will use a centralized voter database in a general election. Voter advocates said low turnout in earlier primary elections didn’t provide a strong test of the new databases.

States are required to have a repository of statewide voters under the 2002 federal Help America Vote Act. In the past, these lists of eligible voters were compiled mostly by local governments. The new centralized databases are governed by rules created by state elections officials following HAVA guidelines.

Ben Wilcox, executive director of Common Cause Florida, a nonprofit advocacy group in Tallahassee, said officials in many states are anxious about how the relatively untested databases will function in a full-scale election.

“I think the cause for concern now is that it’s new,” said Wilcox. “The primary election back in September had a very low turnout. We were hoping for a higher one to put the database to a good test. Going into the general election, there is still concern that people may show up to vote and not find themselves on the rolls.”

Adding to the challenge in Florida is a strict policy requiring that new-voter information exactly match that person’s information in other state databases, such as that used by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, said Dianne Wheatley-Giliotti, president of the Tallahassee-based League of Women Voters of Florida.

If a Florida resident is identified as “Bill Smith” in one database and “William Smith” in the other, the voter won’t be allowed to cast a ballot, she said. Voters who haven’t been validated won’t necessarily know until they arrive to cast their ballots.

Some, but not all, ineligible voters have been sent warnings, but those notes don’t specify which information on their registration forms is incomplete, Wheatley-Giliotti said.

Ion Sancho, head of elections in Leon County, Fla., said the problem could be compounded in some counties where IT personnel are unfamiliar with the statewide database technology.

Sancho: Technology training a potential issue.

Sancho: Technology training a potential issue.The voter database previously used in Leon County was based on the same technology in the new statewide data¿base, so IT personnel there can fix glitches, Sancho said. “Other counties don’t know all the ins and outs,” he noted.

Justin Levitt, associate counsel with the democracy program at New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, predicted that database problems are likely in a number of states, such as Florida, North Carolina and South Dakota, which require that new-voter information exactly match data in other state repositories.

Levitt also noted that a study of HAVA’s voter registration requirements by the Brennan Center found that the databases were quickly created in many states, leaving IT workers little time for training.

“We worry that people will only find out on [Election Day] that they are ineligible to vote,” Levitt said.

Bob Fitrakis, an independent candidate for governor of Ohio, fears that a sizable number of voters have been unknowingly purged from the statewide database there, according to his campaign manager, Paddy Shaffer. The fears were prompted by the use of outdated registration forms in several counties, Shaffer said.

A spokesman for Ohio Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell did not respond to requests for comment.

In Ohio, said Levitt, eligibility practices are unclear. “Where systems are less transparent, there’s greater reason for concern,” he said.

A spokeswoman for Florida Secretary of State Sue Cobb downplayed concerns about the new voter database, noting that no one will be turned away from Florida polling places. “If you are not on the registration rolls, you are able to vote [using] a provisional ballot,” she said. “The voter has three days to bring in documentation that confirms that they are a registered voter.”

The Florida database was created under HAVA guidelines, the spokeswoman said. Following the Sept. 5 primary election, supervisors were “very pleased” with the new Florida Voter Registration System, she said.

Wheatley-Giliotti called the provisional ballot another stumbling block for an ever-diminishing pool of voters to overcome.

See more Election 2006 coverage:

  •  E-voting state by state: What you need to know

  •  Laws, lingo and technologies

  •  Voter-targeting technologies

  •  Major players: the vendors

  •  Review: Hacking Democracy

  •  Sound Off: Your comments on e-voting in 2006

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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