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ACM Experts: Heavy Voter Turnout Will Test Voter Registration Systems

Technology Leaders See Voter Registration Databases as Gatekeepers of Participation

Association for Computing Machinery
Advancing Computing as a Science & Profession


Virginia Gold

Cameron Wilson

ACM Public Policy Office


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Washington, DC, October 27, 2008 – The 2008 election has become a crucial test for many newly installed or overhauled voter registration databases (VRDs), ACM computing experts report.  The databases, which the 2002 Federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) required states to put in place, have become a source of confusion in early voting currently underway in several states.  In some cases, disputes about how to verify existing records in these databases have led to court filings.  Experts from ACM’s U.S. Public Policy Committee (USACM), will be monitoring and analyzing the reliability of registration records and voting equipment around the nation as Election Day approaches.

            Under Federal Law, states are required to verify new registrations against their drivers’ license numbers or the last four digits of social security numbers.  As states match lists of newly registered voters, some generated by third parties, they confront “no match” indications that may be caused by data entry errors, faulty data, or improper registrations.  These mismatches have led to difficult decisions over how to validate these registrations and whether to purge names of some existing voters.

            “VRDs must control for data entry errors and large-scale data merges and purges as well as security concerns to avoid voter disenfranchisement, personal information leaks, and voter fraud,” said Barbara Simons, a co-author of ACM’s report on Voter Registration Databases“VRDs must also be able to withstand the stresses of Election Day conditions when they are used for real-time electronic checking of voter eligibility,” said Simons, an ACM former president and a co-founder of USACM.

            ACM’s report on VRDs includes 99 high-level recommendations to help states establish best practices for computerized statewide electronic databases.  “Long delays and contested voter eligibility have been caused by problems with VRD systems,” said Simons.   “Systems that aren’t built to best practices may cause havoc in the election process in some locales.  For example, the ACM report recommends that when driver registration databases are used for eligibility checks, they should apply only to screening voters, not to automatically enrolling or de-enrolling them.”  In August 2008, Simons was appointed to the Board of Advisors for the Election Assistance Commission (EAC), the Federal body that oversees voting technology standards.

            USACM chair Eugene Spafford noted that electronic VRDs might make registration and voting procedures more efficient, but he expressed concern that mismanaged updates could wipe thousands of people off the voting rolls.

            “Ideally, automated checks should be done well in advance of an election so voters can contest ‘no match’ results; in reality, officials are trying to verify voter eligibility from a flood of new registrations very close to the election, said Spafford.  “Officials need to establish contingency mechanisms to manage situations where mismatches occur to ensure that eligible persons are not de-registered as a result of database errors or human errors.”  Professor Spafford, director of the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security (CERIAS) at Purdue University, said that USACM has worked at all levels – from Federal boards to local polling places – to ensure that effective safeguards are used by computer-based systems for eligibility verification, vote casting, and vote counting.

            “The polling place environment creates special challenges for these systems,” said USACM member Harry Hochheiser, assistant professor of Computer and Information Sciences at Towson University.  “VRDs are accessed in crowded, noisy locations, and used by election workers who may have little training.  Minor errors or design problems that normally might not present problems could cause major difficulties on Election Day,” said Hochheiser, who is also a co-author of ACM’s Report on Voter Registration Databases.

            Simons, Spafford, Hochheiser and other USACM electronic voting experts will track voting processes in key states, and are available to analyze voting issues around the nation.


About ACM

ACM, the Association for Computing Machinery, is the world’s largest educational and scientific computing society, uniting computing educators, researchers and professionals to inspire dialogue, share resources and address the field’s challenges. ACM strengthens the computing profession’s collective voice through strong leadership, promotion of the highest standards, and recognition of technical excellence. ACM supports the professional growth of its members by providing opportunities for life-long learning, career development, and professional networking.


The ACM U.S. Public Policy Committee (USACM) serves as the focal point for ACM's interaction with U.S. government organizations, the computing community, and the U.S. public in all matters of U.S. public policy related to information technology.  Supported by ACM's Washington, D.C., Office of Public Policy, USACM responds to requests for information and technical expertise from U.S. government agencies and departments, seeks to influence relevant U.S. government policies on behalf of the computing community and the public, and provides information to ACM on relevant U.S. government activities. USACM also identifies potentially significant technical and public policy issues and brings them to the attention of ACM and the community.

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