Tagged voter registration

Possible Ohio Election Meltdown — from a Clunky Database?

Tomorrow is Election Day 2012, and with many people experiencing pre-election angst, perhaps now is not the time to start telling our patient readers what the heck we’ve been doing in technology land for the last several months. Right now, we’re in a bit of a breather, as election officials and other partners have been focusing solely on the final slog to election day, and readying for a couple intense weeks of work post-election. So instead, I’ll be focusing on sharing with you a technology spin on current election news, and get around to our own accomplishments a little later.

The news of the moment I want to share is this:  there is a good chance that Ohio’s state and federal election results won’t be available on Election Night or even the next day, and root of the problem is technology. To continue the tree analogy, the trunk is process, the branches are people, the leaves are provisional ballots, and the possible storm blowing through the tree is litigation about the ballots. The technology root is balky; the trunk process of finding absentee voters is tricky; election officials didn’t do the process correctly; thousands of absentee voters will instead vote provisionally; the delay in counting those ballots can create the opportunity for a storm.

As a result, there is Florida-2000-style election meltdown looming in Ohio. Due to problems with Ohio’s voter records database, perhaps as many as 100,000 Ohioans will vote on provisional ballots, a huge number when you consider that every one of them requires human decisions about whether to count it. And those decisions must be monitored and recorded, because if the decision is “yes” then it is irrevocable. Once a provisional ballot is separated from the voter’s affidavit (explaining why they are entitled to vote even if the poll worker didn’t think so) and counted, then you can’t un-count it. Likewise, the “no” decisions lead to a pile of uncounted ballots, which can be the focus of litigation.

“How does a voter records system lead to this?” you might well ask, thinking of a voter registration system that mainly handles new voter registration (creating a new voter record), and updates or re-registration (e.g. changing the address in an existing voter record). Technology glitches could disenfranchise a voter, but create an election integrity meltdown? Yes – and that’s because we’re not talking about a voter registration system or database, but rather a voter records system that local election officials use for many purposes. And in this case, it’s the hinge for absentee voting.

Here’s how it works. An Ohio voter requests absentee status via a voter registration form, either a new registration or an update of an existing record. If that request is granted, the voter record’s absentee status is updated. Later on, 50-something days before the election, local election officials use the system to find all the people in their county who will be voting absentee, and send each of them their absentee ballot via U.S. Post. But what if the “find all the absentee voters” part doesn’t work? Then some people don’t get an absentee ballot, and many of them will try to vote in person, and hit a snag, because:

  1. The find-the-absentee-voters part is tricky to do with the voter-records system, and many county officials were not given the correct instructions for the lookup. As result, many absentee voters didn’t get an absentee ballot.
  2. What does seem to work OK is preparing the pollbooks for in-person voting, where the poll books indicate for each voter whether they have absentee status. As a result, you get voters with absentee status — but no absentee ballot — showing up on Election Day, and being told that they already have a ballot.

Then what? Well, if a voter is persistent and/or the poll workers well-trained and not swamped, then a poll worker will help the voter understand how to vote provisionally — mark a ballot that does not go into the ballot box, but rather into an envelope with the voter’s info. After the election, all these provisional ballot envelopes go to county election HQ, where election officials have to process each envelope, to decide whether the ballot inside should be counted.

Now, the 100,000 estimate kicks in. In a small county with thousands of provisional ballots, or a large county with tens of thousands, the provisional ballot processing can easily go all night and into the next day, because it can’t even begin until all absentee ballots have been centrally counted, folded into the results from precincts, and tabulated as preliminary election results. Now suppose that statewide, the margin of victory for the presidential election is only tens of thousands of votes, and statewide there are 100,000+ provisional ballots that are yet to be counted?

In that case, provisional ballot processing is going to receive a lot of scrutiny, and every one of those non-counted ballots is going to be subjected to the type of controversy we saw in Minnesota 4 years ago with the Franken-Coleman senate contest that took weeks to resolve. And this is the situation that has many Ohio election officials (and me) praying that whatever the election result is, the margin is wider than the number of provisional ballots.

This situation is rooted in a voter records system that’s too complicated and clunky for harried, under-funded, under-staffed, hard-working election officials to use reliably. So if you doubted that ordinary information technology could create a possible election meltdown just as easily as flaky proprietary voting systems, well, now you know. And that’s just one reason why we’ve been hard at work on registration-related technology — try to help create the public benefit of an election that is and can be seen to have been administered correctly, before the ballot counting even begins.

Keep those fingers crossed …


Public Benefit from Online Voter Registration?

Some feedback on a couple recent blogs showed that I didn’t do such a great job on defining how our OVR work creates public benefit. So let me try again, with thanks to a canny reader who pointed out the subtlety involved.

But first, let me restate what our OVR work is: online voter registration assistance technology for NGOs like RockTheVote and government organizations like state and local boards of election. Through our work with RockTheVote, a large and expanding number of good government groups and other NGOs can quickly get an OVR system of their own, without deploying software or operating computers; and some can take advantage of options to largely re-work the appearance of the OVR web application, and/or integrate with mobile clients and social media. We’re also helping drive registrants to the government organizations as well, for those states with a strong online voter registration systems, who have requested that the Rocky OVR system give users the option of registering with the state board of elections. Then, out at the bleeding edge, it is even possible for local or state election officials to piggyback on the OVR system to have their own 100% election-official-managed online voter registration assistance system, with the same look and feel as other county or state web sites, and all without any procurement or deployment.

So, fair enough, we’re the technology provider in a mix of many organizations who either want to help people register to vote (NGOs) or are have a basic mission of helping people register — county registrars and state election officials. So where is the public benefit? And where is the subtlety that I mentioned? Many people would say that in a broad way, the public as a whole benefits when more eligible voters are registered and participate in elections — but not all. In fact, that is a political issue that we at OSDV want to steer clear of, especially given the political conflicts between some, who wish to aggressively register people in droves and who are more concerned about participation than eligibility, and others who are concerned about possible fraud and are more concerned about eligibility that participation. The debate about voter registration practices goes from one extreme where an election is tainted if it seems that a single eligible voter was barred from participation, to the the other extreme where an election is tainted if there is a suspicion about a single ineligible person having cast a ballot.

So where do public benefits arise separately from these political issues? In a word: access, from a citizen perspective; and duty, from an election official perspective. Every eligible citizen deserves and is entitled to access to elections. It is the duty of election officials to provide that access to the eligible citizens who demand access, and to fairly and expeditiously assess every request for eligibility. Whether or not one is a fan of voter registration drives, or of voter roll purging, there is this shared value: eligible citizens who are trying to participate in elections should not have the access blocked by election officials. Yet in many cases that does occur because well-meaning public officials simply lack the resources, staff, or budget to be responsive to citizen needs. In OSDV’s wheel-house, the lack that we address is lack of  election technology, or lack of an effective way to acquire and deploy relevant technology.

And the technology angle is particularly important for younger citizens, who have been using computers and smart phones for practically everything for their whole lives. And network and mobile technology is in fact appropriate for registration and all manner of other voter services — unlike voting which has unique anonymity and integrity requirements — and so people expect it. Many election officials use technology to help them more effectively carry out their duties, meeting those expectations —  including those relating to voter registration. But for other election officials, there is gap between what they need, and what they are actually able to do within limitations of budget, procurement, staff; or products that simply don’t provide the functions appropriate to their jurisdiction. So the gap has multiple dimensions, but across them all, government officials are doing less than they could, in performance of their duties to provide election access to those who are actively seeking it and are eligible.

So when we or anyone else helps to fill that gap with new or better or more available technology, then we have enabled public benefit: election officials can do more in spite of having less resources every year; entitled voters can vote; and thirdly and often overlooked, good government groups and watchdog agencies have more visibility to assess how well the election officials really are doing their job. And that third factor is quite important. Just look at the horror-show of suspicion, vituperation, conspiracy theory, litigation, and Internet-speed dis- or mis-information that spun up recently in Talahassee and Memphis and elsewhere, over removal of people from voter rolls. It may be that nefarious people really were rigging the poll books, or it may be the electronic voter records are in significant dis-array, or it may be voter record databases are antique and prone to administrative error. But we’ll never really know. Resource constrained election organizations, that run old election technology with demonstrated flaws, and little or no self-record-keeping, find it extremely difficult to demonstrate to interested and entitled observers, exactly what is going on inside the computers, when one of these election year firestorms brews up.

And when the firestorm is big enough, it essentially prevents election officials from delivering on a fundamental duty: performing accurate and trustworthy elections. In other words, those firestorms are also a detriment to public confidence in elections. We, in addition to helping election officials perform their duties, are also passionate about delivering technology that can help with the transparency that’s part of firestorm prevention, and reducing their public detriment.

And lastly that brings me to a related point for another day: how the technology that we’re developing now can help deliver that transparency, along with the improvement in the technical infrastructure for U.S. elections. The next chunk is still in the oven, but I really look forward to sharing it here, when it is fully baked.


Online Voter Registration for Jurisdictions Large and Small (Part 2)

My last posting was a bit of a cliff-hanger (sorry) for the claims that:

  • We’re doing useful work to enable NGOs and election officials to offer online voter registration assistance to voters …
  • … without doing a major acquisition or system integration of the scale that VA is doing now (with OSDV help) or that WA has done or CA is doing in a similar way …
  • … but rather using a middle way, between those large projects and the “download this PDF to fill out by hand” kind of support.

The key here is to enable election officials to extend a major change in usability, while spending modest time and effort to quickly stand up an online voter registration assistance service.

As I wrote earlier, we took the first step a few weeks ago when we went live with a new release of the “Rocky” OVR assistance system operated by RockTheVote and hosted by Open Source Labs. The main feature of the new release was a web services application programming interface (API) that provides other web applications with access to all of Rocky’s functions for voter registration assistance. Now it is time for me to connect the dots from there to actual benefit for voters and election officials — starting with an explanation of what the API is.

If you take a test drive of “Rocky” you will see a human interface for people and their browsers to interact with Rocky. By contrast, the programming interface is for other web sites to interact with Rocky, or indeed any software including mobile apps and FaceBook apps. Another web site could implement its own separate human interface — different branding, different workflow — while a mobile app could assist the user by pulling information stored on the mobile device. But either way, the web site or mobile app does not need to have any back-end. Instead, they rely on Rocky for checking user data, constructing PDFs, storing registrant data, sending email reminders, and so forth.

As a result, we’ve substantially lowered the cost in time and effort for any elections officials or NGOs to develop and deploy their own online-voter-assistance system, by opening up Rocky to be the back-end for these systems, so that all the complexity — and cost of deployment! — of the back-end functionality just drops out of these systems. No database to set up and manage, no computational heavy lifting. For organizations that already have a web site, it can be as simple as adding one or a few new forms pages, with a link to Rocky that will submit the voter’s registration information, and present back to the user the PDF with their completed form and mailing instructions.

Any organization can use Rocky via the API in this way, including local elections offices that already have a Web site that they can update to use the Rocky API. And for local election officials in particular, there is an additional benefit. Via the API they can obtain a digital copy of the voter registration form data, and a tracking number. When the signed paper form arrives in the mail, they can type or scan in the bar-coded tracking number, and get the form data, so that they don’t have to retype all the information on the form — a time consuming (and in peak voter registration season, expensive)  task with much scope for human error.

There’s a lot to like about this approach, but it gets even better. In an upcoming release there will be even more features that will help organizations have the very own Rocky OVR system, but without having to have an existing web site that is easy to modify. Depending on how fancy an elections org wants to customize the look and feel, it could be a matter of a couple hours work to get up and running. Even better! More on that when the system is live.


Online Voter Registration for Jurisdictions Large and Small

Much of OSDV’s currrent work relates to election technology for voter registration.* In recent blog posts, I’ve been talking about voter registration in the context of OSDV’s mission to put much needed, innovative election technology into the hands of elections officials and voters who are underserved by the best that the for-profit election technology market has been able to deliver so far:

  • clunky, arcane, and opaque registration systems,
  • clunky, arcane, and opaque adminstration technology, and
  • voting systems that don’t accurately record votes.

(The latest in the latter saga of woe is NY state BoE’s report from an investigation of how the “phantom vote” phenomena manifested itself in voting systems that recorded votes not actually cast by anyone.)

Specifically for voter registration, among the many needs is one at the front end of the process: just getting people to fill out the administrative forms that are required for voting “eligibility management:

  • register to vote,
  • update a voter record,
  • request an absentee ballot or absentee status,

or the even more arcane forms that overseas and military voters use for

  • the same purposes but with different administrative rules, plus varying state-specific requirements.

The good news for citizens of the Commonwealth of Virginia is that help is on the way, with a new voter service that will step a voter through each of several complex and VA-specific application forms and combinations — and produces properly formatted paper documents that regular people can actually understand, both voters before they sign and mail the forms, and local election officials who process them.

But what about other states and localities that don’t have the resources for the type of comprehensive project that the VA SBE has undertaken with OSDV and other participants? The good news for them is that there is a middle way. We took the first step a couple of weeks ago when we went live with a new release of the “Rocky” OVR assistance system operated by RockTheVote and hosted by Open Source Labs. The main feature of the new release was a web service application programming interface (API) that provides access to all of the Rocky functions. However, rather than via a browser of a user, the API provides those functions to other web sites.

How is that a benefit to elections officials, and a public benefit to voters? Sorry to make this post a cliff-hanger, but the explanation of the API will have to wait for next time. Stay tuned, it’s worth it!


* (As some readers may have figured out already, even-numbered years to focus on registration and reporting as the voter-visible bookends of an election, while odd-numbered years have more focus on the mechanics of casting and counting ballots and data interperability to enable public transparency.)

New Citizens: Adding Usability to the Voter Registration Process

As I wrote last time, I had the wonderful opportunity to observe a citizenship oath ceremony. It had a big emphasis on voting, and included San Francisco elections department people on hand to help the new citizens register to vote. Today, I wanted to share the flip side of what I saw, and I want to start to connect it to some election technology work that we’re doing now — work that I think can deliver some real public benefit.

After the ceremony, I saw a real distinction between two groups of people. One group was clearly enthusiastic about voting as a benefit of their new citizenship. Some had already filled out the somewhat cramped and confusing voter registration application form from the packet of many administrative documents they were handed earlier. Others very sensibly got some help in filling out the forms by walking up the the table where the elections division folks were offering to help people with the form. Either way, most of them were very appreciative of the elections folks being there to help and to make sure that the completed forms got to the right place quickly.

Another group was markedly un-interested, despite the encouragement to vote, in the dealing with yet another form, more government officials, and an additional disclosure of personal info to yet another part of the government. I found it sad but understandable. But for part of this group I also felt frustrated, because I was seeing right in front of me a form of barrier to franchise, albeit largely unintentional. The enthusiastic group tended to be younger, more voluble and confident speaking English (for most of the new citizens, English is a second or third language – about 2/3 of the new citizens that day were born in El Salvador, Mexico, or the Philippines), and more technologically literate (if fiddling with a smart phone is a sign of that). The rather sizable less enthusiastic group had a lot of grandparents being assisted by younger family or friends.

For these people, the application form might well be daunting: two pages of instructions in small font in addition to a form with little boxes that are hard to read for anyone, much less a user of reading glasses. And for those who actually read the instructions, there is some real confusion over whether you can vote if you lack a driver’s license or SSN. (I expect that some people lacked one or maybe both.) More vexing, the elections department people told me how conscious they were about people’s need for help in doing the application form correctly, and having to deal with more paperwork, and having to take the initiative to walk over to speak to more government people, in order to get the help.

In fact, one of them said that they wished they had the voter registration form on an iPad, and each of them could work the crowd with iPad in hand to get people filling the form with as large print as needed, in whatever language was convenient, with as much online assistance as possible, and no pages of daunting instructions. That really great idea really got to me, because I had 90% of it on my laptop in my backpack. I could have pulled out the laptop, which like an iPad, could be used for browser access the online voter registration assistance service that’s operated by RockTheVote, with OSDV/TrustTheVote technology that I helped build. We were so close to what the elections folks needed to be more helpful to the people standing right there!

But even with a few iPads and a printer and wireless network to connect them, the elections department folks would not quite have had what they need: an online voter registration (OVR) assistance system that is used by the government, not by an NGO that might (incorrectly) be construed as partisan. Particularly in the setting of the citizenship oath ceremony — outside, a madhouse of partisan political organizations clamoring for attention — the government folks need to be using government systems.

And they don’t have it, at least not most elections folks, even though it is so close.

So what we need to do is get this OVR technology delivered in a way that lots of elections officials can adopt quickly, adapt and localize quickly and easily, and get into production operation quickly and easily without having to spend a bunch of money, with all the government procurement hassles that that would entail.

We need to do that; the citizenship ceremony experience made that plain, as well as the government officials’ need, and so … well, so we are doing that, specifically, right now. More on details next time.


Naturalization, Citizenship, and Voter Registration

I’m sitting in the historic grand Paramount Theater in Oakland, California. Perhaps an odd place from which to return to blogging after some time, but I wanted to re-start on a personal note that’s also quite connected to the voter registration technology work that we’ve been doing over the last many months.

I’ve just witnessed a naturalization ceremony where 994 people (one of them very special to me) from 104 nations have taken an oath to become citizens of the United States of America. It’s impossible for this to sound other than trite, but it’s true: these people worked hard — some of them very hard indeed — to reach this point, while all I had to do was be born. It is so inspiring that I think everyone should witness one of these ceremonies, to really get a feeling for what it is like to choose to be an American.

And (no surprise) for me a big part of being American is voting. That’s why I was so pleased and thrilled with the amount of time in this ceremony devoted to voting rights and elections and participation. But just as gratifying to me was the presence of election officials from the San Francisco elections division, who briefed the audience in 3 languages on how they should register to vote. And the easiest option that they offered — and kudos to them for it — was to fill out the voter registration form that was already in their hands, and bring it to their table in the lobby. There, the elections division folks made sure the form was complete and correct, and took the completed forms right then and there, no mailing required, even for other counties than San Francisco. They even let me help pass out forms to people in line, in case they didn’t get one.

My personal experience was great, but also a cause for some reflection on the experience of others present in the theatre. But because this has been a great day, I’ll save those reflections, including a technology angle of course, for a better time to consider room for improvement via technology.


Bedrock 3: The Big Picture

At the end of our last visit to the fictional Town of Bedrock, we left Fred as he applied to run for mayor. Now we’ll continue the story, but with a focus on Bedrock itself, in order to continue building up a detailed, yet simplified, account of actual U.S. election practice.

The focus is on Bedrock rather than its colorful denizens, because the answer to the current question — can Fred be a candidate for mayor in the upcoming election? — lies partly in the details of Cobblestone County and Town of Bedrock, how they are structured and administered for elections. At a first glance of the Bedrock County map, you’ll see that the Town of Bedrock is entirely in Cobblestone County, dividing the county into two regions, the part that is incorporated in the Town, and the unincorporated portion.

Map for Election Administration of Bedrock

Map for Election Administration of Bedrock

Look a bit more closely though, and you’ll see the Mineral District — not a town but a political division called an electoral district (in some states in the U.S., called a jurisdiction rather than a district). The Mineral District in the part of the county that’s affected by quarrying operations at the Bedrock Quarry, and the Bedrockites who live there get to elect the Quarry Commission to regulate the Quarry. Look a bit more carefully and you’ll notice that part of the Mineral District is in the Town of Bedrock, and the rest is in the unincorporated county.

To keep our Election Tale simple, that’s almost all of the electoral structure of Cobblestone County that is the jurisdiction of the Bedrock BoE. The remaining part may be a bit more familiar: the precincts. Each precinct is a region in which all of the voters are entitled to vote on exactly the same ballot items; put another way, in one precinct all of the voters reside in exact same set of electoral districts. So in Bedrock County, there are 4 precincts:

  • The “Downtown-001” precinct, part of two districts: the district of the Town of Bedrock, and the district for Bedrock County;
  • The “Quarrytown-002” precinct, part of those same two districts, plus the Mineral District;
  • The “QuarryCounty-003” precinct, part of the Mineral District and the County;
  • The “County-004” precinct, part of just the district for the County.

Looking a little more carefully, you’ll notice the Flintstone residence is in the QuarryTown-002 precinct, which means the Flintstones (or at least those of them that are registered voters) are eligible to run for offices in either the Town or the Quarry District. To say that more generally, in order to be eligible to run for an office, you have to reside in the district that the office is part of. Fred wants to run for Mayor of the Town of Bedrock, so he has to reside in the Town of Bedrock.

Rocky Stonerman

Rocky Stonerman

Back at the BBoE, Rocky has completed the eligibility check for Fred, having ensured that:

  • he resides in the Town of Bedrock,
  • he is registered to vote,
  • his current address matches the address in his voter record,
  • he is not serving jail time,

and perhaps some other eligibility requirements in Stone Age election law that we are not aware of. Fred is satisfied to find that on the Bedrock slab-site’s Upcoming Election slab, he is listed as a candidate for mayor. However, there is also a bit of a surprise: his neighbor Betty Rubble is running against him! And also Barney Rubble is running for Fred’s old Quarry Commission seat. Also, the commission’s clerical errors seem to have been resolved, and the quarry fee referendum will be on the ballot. With a few more days of filing time left, an irritated Fred ponders who lives in the Mineral District, that might be convinced to run against Barney.

Next Time: it’s time for ballot design – get out your Chisel!


AR vs. UVR?

I came across an interesting article about voter registration: “The Alternative to Universal Voter Registration” where John N. Hall strongly supports Automatic Registration (AR) over Universal Voter Registration (UVR).

To people who are not election experts the distinction is a bit subtle. UVR has states proactively try to register everyone to vote, while AR has the federal government somehow use Social Security records to automatically register people.

In Mr Hall’s words, AR can be implemented by doing the following:

“Computer programs read through the Social Security Administration database, extract the data of age-eligible citizens, then send that data to the states.” (from The Alternative To Universal Voter Registration)

Now that I started writing this post and did some more googling I see that this is already a heavily debated topic that has flown back and forth, starting with John Fund’s (of the Wall Street Journal) original talk, to Rep. Barney Frank’s angry denunciation that he had nothing to do with the claims that he was involved in any way with Universal Voter Registration, to Mr Fund’s retraction of the claim, to more links than you can shake as stick at about the topic.

Anyway as usual I am johnny come lately. Phew. My original thought though was about the original post. You see, John Hall, being a “computer programmer” makes it sounds simple:

Voila! Why make mandates on all those state agencies and dragoon all that manpower entailed by UVR when a computer program can register everyone? A competent programmer could write the extract program in his sleep.” (from The Alternative to Universal Voter Registration)

Any description of this that starts with “Voila” and ends with “in his sleep” is … well let’s just say, it must be a bit of a simplification….

For example I would imagine that there would be major privacy concerns about sending information out of the social security systems out to each of the states. I am not sure that the states registration records even include social security information. And what about all the voters who don’t have social security numbers, there must be some, or many? And how quickly are the social security databases updated when people die?

Congress Starts Pushing Voter Registration Modernization

Twelve days ago without a lot of fanfare and perhaps overshadowed by the MOVE Act enactment, the House took a small step forward in pushing a modest voter registration modernization initiative when Congressman Kevin McCarthy, who is the most senior Republican on the House Administration Subcommittee on Elections, introduced the Responsible Online Voter Empowerment Registration Act (H.R. 4449).

Of course, those looking over the innovation horizon will always return to the same question of whether voter registration shouldn’t be an opt-out verses an opt-in matter.  I’ll leave that policy food fight for others, but will point out that there can be no “Frankenswitch” solution to modernizing voter registration.  In other words, even if more aggressive voter modernization initiatives are to succeed — such as declaring every citizen who attains the age of majority in their State as de-facto registered to vote unless they otherwise opt-out,  there will be a need to manage one’s registration details and status.  And that will, for some time to come, require the appropriate technology to do so.  In a digital age, that means online services, which brings us back to Representative McCarthy’s legislation introduced on Wednesday the 13th.

Rep. McCarthy introduced this legislation to increase states’ online voter registration services without compromising existing safeguards that protect against fraud.  Congressman McCarthy issued the following statement:

In an era of unprecedented technology, I am pleased that we could work with election officials across the country to produce a solution that will provide incentives for states to implement online registration programs that will increase accuracy, protect against fraud and reduce administrative costs.  As Americans utilize more technology in their daily lives, it is important that the systems that are used to elect our official representatives at all levels stay up-to-date to allow all voters to let their voices be heard on election day.

H.R 4449 provides incentives for States to implement online registration services that should (the Congressman’s web site reports “will” and we’d be inclined to agree, but prefer to wait and see due to some of the potential complications of the clerical processes involved) increase the accuracy of registration records, reduce the administrative costs associated with data entry, and protect against the processing of fraudulent registrations by requiring voter eligibility and identity verification.

Kewl.  For those who’ve been paying closer attention, you’ll recognize those points from many of our writings in recent months.  We applaud the Congressman’s initiative and hope it comes out of Committee and reaches the House floor for a vote.  Its a small, but necessary step in the direction of modernizing one of the most important components of America’s aging elections technology framework.

Now, if we could only get Congress to acknowledge that the Nation’s elections technology is tantamount to critical democracy infrastructure (our words) and as such, should be open, transparent, publicly owned technology.  That’s another step for another day; easier to take once there stuff that people can see, touch, and try.


Barbara Simons on Voter Registration

We have a special treat today with a guest blog from Barbara Simons, an eminent computer scientist who is on the Board of Advisors of the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. (More on Barbara: her bio.) She has an excellent account of part of the story about where voter registration came from, and why it is controversial that U.S. citizens must proactively request permission to vote, and then pass muster w.r.t. eligibility requirements as evaluated by an election official.  The controversy, in a nutshell, is that registration can be a way of preventing people from voting, including via the practice of disenfranchising felons.  So where did the practice of registration, and the controversy, come from? Barbara: take it away …

[Ed. Note:  The following commentary from Barbara Simons incorporates for referential, historical, and explanatory purposes only quotations that by any standard today would be considered controversial, inappropriate, and simply reprehensible.  They are only quotes pulled from history to explain the point and are not the opinions or positions of Ms. Simons, the TrustTheVote Project, or the OSDV Foundation.]

Felon disenfranchisement was introduced in the South after the Civil War as a way of disenfranchising the newly freed slaves. Southern whites even invented new felonies that were applied almost exclusively to African Americans. Here are some quotes from that era.

From a Mississippi Supreme Court decision upholding the state’s disenfranchisement law (Ratliff v. Beale): “The [constitutional] convention swept the circle of expedients to obstruct the exercise of the franchise by the negro race.  By reason of its previous condition of servitude and dependence, this race had acquired or accentuated certain peculiarities of habit, of temperament and of character, which clearly distinguished it, as a race, from that of the whites — a patient docile people, but careless, landless, and migratory within narrow limits, without aforethought, and its criminal members given rather to furtive offenses than to the robust crimes of the whites.  Restrained by the federal constitution from discriminating against the negro race, the convention discriminated against its characteristics and the offenses to which its weaker members were prone.”

The following is from John Field Bunting, who introduced disenfranchisement legislation in Alabama in 1901: “The crime of wife-beating alone would disqualify sixty percent of the Negroes.” Perhaps the bluntest acknowledgment of the purpose of the felon disenfranchisement laws was provided by Carter Glass, a delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention in 1902.  Glass stated that Virginia’s felony disenfranchisement scheme

… will eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State in less than 5 years, so that in no single county will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government.

The end of Reconstruction marked the beginning of disenfranchisement for the newly freed slaves.  In the South during the Jim Crow era that followed, African Americans were prevented from registering by a combination of poll taxes, literacy tests, felon disenfranchisement, and threatened or real violence.  For example, there were 130,334 African American voters in Louisiana in 1896, but only 1,342 in 1904.

According to “Registration of Voters in Louisiana”: “Six pages of [the Constitution of 1898] are devoted to suffrage and elections.  The object of the convention was, of course, to establish white supremacy by reducing the number of Negroes voting to a minimum.  The qualifications to vote as well as

the entire system of registration were written in such a way that most Negroes could be disenfranchised.

Other clauses were incorporated to permit the poor white to vote and yet not admit the Negro to the ballot.”

Felon disenfranchisement laws still have a disproportionate impact on African Americans.  Only Maine and Vermont (both of which have small African American populations) have no felon disenfranchisement laws.  Felons can vote from prison in those states.  Southern states are disproportionately represented among states with the extensive felon disenfranchisement laws, as are states with large non-white prison populations.  African American males have been significantly impacted, with roughly one in six disenfranchised in the early 21 century because of felony convictions.

It seems likely that if the U.S. didn’t engage in felon disenfranchisement that a number of election results, including at the presidential level, would have had different outcomes. The U.S. is the only democracy that has lifetime felon disenfranchisement.  We are still living with the legacy of slavery.

Barbara Simons

PS: Thanks again to Barbara for a valuable history lesson of background for our work at TTV to  include registration as a legally required part of a broader effort voter record management technology, that also includes some of the changes contemplated by the “election modernization” efforts in Congress.  — John Sebes, CTO TrustTheVote Project