Accurate Voter Registration Lists Are Essential To Election Integrity

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Michael Thielen Executive Director, Republican National Lawyers Association
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Yesterday, the House Committee on Administration held a hearing on state voter registration list maintenance.  While list maintenance does not generate headlines like voter ID, double voting, or other election stories, it is vital to protecting the integrity of our elections.  Here’s why.

Imagine someone—let’s call him Fred—believes in a candidate so strongly that he wants to vote for the candidate more than once.  His old roommate Bob moved away last year but Fred knows that his state’s voter registration rolls are so outdated and inaccurate that Bob is certainly still registered to vote.  Fred may inadvertently receive a mail ballot addressed to Bob or request a ballot in Bob’s name, vote the absentee ballot, and then also go to the polls and vote on Election Day in his own name.  It is basically impossible to detect the fraudulent double vote in Bob’s name because Bob, though no longer a resident, is a duly registered voter.  The state’s inaccurate voter registration list has made undetectable fraudulent voting possible.

Enabling fraud is not the only problem with messy voter registration rolls.  Inaccurate rolls also create the opportunity for honest mistakes that negatively impact the voting process.  They contribute to long lines and congestion at the polling place. Voters are also frustrated when they show up at the polling place not properly registered in the correct precinct.  Logistically, inaccurate rolls require states and localities to waste money on ballots, poll workers, and other Election Day resources for ghost voters who do not exist or moved years ago.  As Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson pointed out in the hearing yesterday, the money that is spent unnecessarily on preparing for non-existent voters is desperately needed elsewhere, such as updating technology and security in voting machines.

Inaccurate rolls also distort turnout numbers, making it seem like a state or county had lower turnout than it actually did.  Lawson described how Indiana completed a voter registration list clean-up process statewide, removing inaccurate records from the rolls, after the 2016 election.  Because of legal provisions regarding timing of maintenance procedures, the process could not be completed before the presidential election.  If it had been, Indiana would have had 65% voter turnout in 2016, instead of the 55% it actually reported.  That is a massive difference, and it would make a tremendous difference in voter perception of the election and the level of civic engagement as well.

This is why accurate voter registration lists enjoy bipartisan support.  Every bipartisan presidential election commission in the last 20 years has recommended procedures to help states better maintain their lists.

While liberals pay lip service to accurate voter lists, when it comes down to the painstaking work of actually maintaining accurate official rolls, liberals and Democrats fight to ban nearly every tool that hardworking election officials have at their disposal.

Dale Ho, the Director of the Voting Rights Project at the ACLU and the other witness at yesterday’s hearing, and Democratic Ranking Member Robert Brady both said that no eligible voter should ever be removed from the rolls.  That is non-controversial.  But what they really meant, which was clear when they equated states’ list maintenance procedures with removing eligible voters, was that once a voter is listed on the rolls, it should be nearly impossible to remove them unless the voter themselves requests to be removed, an unlikely event in most instances.

Lawson bemoaned the fact that when a state seeks to clean up its voter rolls, activist organizations always sue the state for its attempt to follow the law.  A prime example — a challenge to Ohio’s voter registration record clean-up program, let by the ACLU and other liberal organizations, is currently pending before the Supreme Court, which will hear oral argument on the important case on November 8.

Ho also complained about the use of tools to improve the accuracy of voter registration lists such as the Department of Homeland Security’s Systematic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) database to identify registered non-citizens and the Social Security Administration’s database to identify deceased voters.

Ho likewise decried the use of the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck program, which identifies potential duplicate registrations by comparing voter registration data from different states.  Crosscheck is a favorite target of liberals, despite being endorsed by President Obama’s bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration, because the generally conservative-leaning Kansas Secretary of State happens to manage the bipartisan consortium in cooperation with 32 other states.  But as Lawson described in response, Crosscheck only flags potential records for states and it is up to the states to use their normal procedures for reviewing and cleaning the rolls to decide whether a record is actually a duplicate or double voter.  As an example, Indiana assigns a system of “confidence points” to potential matches, and local election officials only see records for evaluation, and potential flagging for removal, that have a 75% confidence rating or higher.

As Lawson reminded the Committee, it is important to remember that a voter who has been incorrectly removed from the rolls and goes to the polls can still vote via a provisional ballot and in some cases, by a regular ballot.

Ho offered one, and only one, tool for maintaining accurate voter registration lists: automatic voter registration.  Yet, automatic voter registration is not the panacea that liberals would have us believe.  Automatic voter registration systems, newly implemented in some states, have already resulted in the registration of non-citizens and the disenfranchisement of voters in closed party primaries.  These systems also open the door to other forms of ineligible registration and the perpetuation of errors in government systems.

Recent news provides powerful examples of how inaccurate voter registration lists can be, both threatening the integrity of elections and risking great inconvenience to voters.  Rhode Island recently announced that it has identified 150,000 inaccurate voter registration records in a state with a voting age population of 842,321.  An enormous percentage of the state’s voter registration records had errors, but the state deserves credit for examining its records and seeking to correct the inaccuracies.

An error in the process for registering to vote at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation resulted in at least hundreds—likely thousands statewide—of non-citizens registering to vote.  Approximately half of the non-citizens who registered actually voted in an election.  Putting aside the issues with non-citizen voting and problem-laden DMV registration procedures, a good list maintenance process in Pennsylvania would have been able to identify this problem before a full ten years of non-citizen registration had passed.

Maintaining accurate voter registration lists should be a concept that has universal support.  But unfortunately, like most things in the voting arena, liberals have turned it into a controversial political issue.  Democrat Representative Jamie Raskin said in his opening statement yesterday, “[I]t’s pretty American to see impulses . . . to disenfranchise people through behind-the-scenes political manipulation dressed up as bureaucratic extremism.”  That’s how liberals characterize common-sense efforts to protect the integrity of our elections through cleaning up the voter registration rolls.

The Committee on House Administration should be applauded for examining this important issue and evaluating how the federal government can assist the states in this critical work.

Michael Thielen is executive director of the Republican National Lawyers Association.

Perspectives expressed in op-eds are not those of The Daily Caller.