Dan Tokaji's Blog
Professor Dan Tokaji
Election reform, the Voting Rights Act, the Help America Vote Act, and related topics -- with special attention to the voting rights of people of color, non-English proficient citizens, and people with disabilities

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Equal Vote
Sunday, July 20
What Happens When Voters Don't "Match"?
One of the big under-the-radar issues this election season has to do with the state registration databases required by the Help American Vote Act of 2002. Before HAVA, registration lists were often compiled and administered at the local level. HAVA now requires a statewide registration database. Section 203 of HAVA (42 USC 15483) also requires that states "match" information in the database against motor vehicle and social security records, to verify accuracy.

The problem is that there are all sorts of reasons why voters' names might not match, despite the fact that they've provided accurate information on their registration form. That can include data entry errors, transposition of first and last names, and the use of middle names and nicknames. It's not very clear from HAVA how the matching should be done, or what should happen if the information in the registration database doesn't match motor vehicle and social security records. As the Brennan Center has documented, a too-stringent matching procedure could result in the exclusion of eligible voters. According to the Brennan Center, which has litigated this issue in the states of Washington and Florida, matching in some states has failed 20-30% of the time.

This issue flared up in Wisconsin this past week, as summarized in this report from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Before HAVA, most Wisconsin municipalities didn't even have voter registration. Wisconsin is one of several states that has had difficulty getting its statewide registration database up and running properly, as described in the report From Registration to Recounts that my Moritz colleagues and I published last year.

Last week, Wisconsin's Government Accountability Board (which oversees election administration) considered a rule that would have required voters to cast a provisional ballot, absent a "complete match" of their name, date of birth, and driver's license or other identifying number, unless they provided proof of residence before or on election day. Those provisional ballots would be counted only for voters who provided documentation of their name and addresses by 4 pm the next day. The Brennan Center and I wrote this letter opposing the proposed rule on the ground that it would likely increase the number of provisional ballots and result in some eligible voters not having their votes counted.

On Wednesday, Wisconsin's board backed off the proposed rule change, given the uncertainty of how many false non-matches there would be. Instead of requiring voters to cast provisional ballots if there's no match, the board decided to see how many voters are affected by non-matches in the system. In my view, this was a wise decision.

What's unclear is many other states are going to implement the sort of matching procedure that Wisconsin considered but decided against. States that do so are likely to have a lot of provisional ballots, some of which won't be counted. That will certainly increase the margin of litigation, and could make the difference in close races.

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Moritz College of Law The Ohio State University