Good elections begin with a robust voter-registration system

THE OLYMPIANFebruary 21, 2012 

There’s plenty of room for improvement in the national voter registration system, according to a report released last week by the nonprofit Pew Center on the States’ Elections Initiatives.

Research shows that about one in eight voter registrations is marred by significant error, including 1.8 million deceased people still on the voters’ rolls nationwide.

Some 51 million citizens eligible to vote are not registered. That’s a whopping 24 percent of the eligible population.

This is the lay of the land more than 10 years after voting irregularities in Florida in the presidential election highlighted a system in need of a major overhaul.

After the highly controversial presidential election of 2000, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act. The key provision of the act required states to develop centralized voter registration databases, which the state of Washington did in 2006. The Pew Center study suggests many states continue to lag behind with long-standing flaws in their voter registration programs.

This is unacceptable in a country that relies on citizens to vote. Inclusive, accurate voter registration systems are essential for democracy to work.

Here are some of the disturbing facts uncovered by the Pew Center study:

 • An estimated 12.7 million voter records don’t show the current address of active voters.

 • Another 12 million records have errors in the address, making it unlikely that mail would reach the voter.

 • About 2.75 million registered voters have active registrations in more than one state.

 • Many of the estimated 24 million suspect voter records include multiple errors.

In this highly mobile society, voter registration can be tricky to keep current. Individual voters have a responsibility to keep their records up to date. But it helps when the state has a centralized database to catch glaring errors.

Unfortunately, not all states like to share their voter records with each other. Fortunately, Washington and Oregon are two of eight states participating in a data centralization project.

Secretary of State Sam Reed estimates that the state’s voter registration error rate is roughly half of the national average. He credits the statewide database created in 2006 for boosting confidence in voter records,

Prior to the statewide program, the 39 county auditor offices maintained county-by-county databases that were next to impossible to keep updated to avoid duplicated records, deceased voters and voters convicted of a felony.

In the centralized approach, a list of deceased people is received each month from the state Department of Health and the Social Security Administration. Voter registration of deceased voters are typically scrubbed from the database within 30 days.

With the statewide database, the Secretary of State’s elections office has a much better handle on felons who are ineligible to vote. Three times each year, the state Department of Corrections and the state court system provide the elections officials with lists of felons not allowed to vote. Those names and dates of birth are checked against the voter registration database to eliminate invalid voter records.

Remember the hotly contested governor’s race in 2004 when Gov. Chris Gregoire won by 33 votes? That election, which included allegations of dead voters and felons casting votes, spoke to the crucial need to keep voter records constantly updated for accuracy.

The Pew Center initiative is also creating a database of citizens eligible to vote, but not registered to vote. Reed estimated that group makes up 15 percent of all eligible voters in the state.

Granted, not all of those citizens want to vote for personal or political reasons. But it’s safe to assume some wouldn’t mind being contacted and reminded of the opportunity to register to vote.

With online voter registration, it can be a simple process.

Some may criticize the voter-outreach programs as intrusive and Big Brother-like. But they can be done in such a way that is not overbearing.

Elections at all levels of government benefit from increased voter participation, which begins with increased voter registration.

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