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Errors, poor communication and politics have impeded efforts to clean up registration data.
Monday, October 7, 2013
A combination of poor preparation by Virginia election officials and melodrama from the state Democratic Party threatens to politicize what should be a common goal: clean voter rolls.
At the center of the controversy is a new database containing the names of 57,000 individuals who may have duplicate registrations to vote in Virginia and other states.
Virginia Democrats are suing Gov. Bob McDonnell and Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, accusing them of using the database to try to keep legitimate voters from participating in this year’s elections.
Several registrars have reported errors in the database, and most are struggling to wade through lists of hundreds of voters at a time of the year when they are already overwhelmed with election preparations.
While Democratic leaders warn of dark conspiracies, registrars have a strong motivation not to carelessly cancel registrations. The last thing they need is a long queue of unhappy people on Election Day.
But the lawsuit draws attention to avoidable confusion surrounding the launch of the new database. For starters, it should have been made available to registrars many months in advance of an election. State officials also should have been more clear that a 30-day deadline for purging the names of convicted felons, people declared mentally incompetent and the deceased doesn’t apply to voters in the new database. The Loudoun County registrar, who announced she would research the list after the coming election, was told by state and local officials to proceed immediately, a difficult task given the 2,100 names on the list for that locality. The incident contributed to worries about partisan tricks.
Most important, state officials should have clarified that individuals incorrectly canceled because of an error in the database should be restored without having to re-register, a practice some registrars, but not all, have adopted.
In addition to clearer communication, the database fumbles also point to the need for broader improvements, including better funding for understaffed voter registrars. Better education for voters also needs to be a higher priority. One reason for the large number of duplicate registrations is that many voters are unaware that when they move out of Virginia, register in another state, and then return to the commonwealth, they must re-register here.
The long lists of duplicate registrations also are the cumulative result of many years of poor communication among states on voting information. The Help America Vote Act was supposed to modernize registrations so that states could share records and ensure their accuracy. Realization of that goal has been slow due to inadequate funding and difficulty in cementing interstate cooperation.
The goal remains a good one, but Virginia officials must not act in haste and undermine faith in the election process. It would be a shame if the database dispute discourages Virginians from voting in a year when enthusiasm is already remarkably low.
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