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Pew report: One in eight voting registrations inaccurate

February 14, 2012 |  9:38 am

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This post has been updated. Please see note at bottom for details.

One out of eight voting registrations is inaccurate, and about a quarter of those people eligible to cast a ballot are not even registered, according to a report released Tuesday by the Pew Center on the States.

The report describes a voting system in confusion, with about 1.8 million dead people listed on the rolls, some 2.8 million with active registrations in more than one state and 12 million with serious enough errors to make it unlikely that mail, from any political party or election board, can reach the right destination. In all, some 24 million registrations contain significant errors.

At the same time, the report, titled “Inaccurate, Costly, and Inefficient,” found that at least 51 million potential voters are not registered, and are thus outside the electoral system. That number and the flaws in the existing registration systems are large enough to sway elections from the local to national level, especially in this presidential year.

The United States has a long and rich history of voting, with both good and bad elements. Fights over who is eligible to vote -- and how to get them to the polls --- date back to colonial times, sometimes featuring outright fraud or legal restrictions based on property ownership or education.

Even in the current election cycle, access to voting remains an issue. In general, Democrats have argued for the broadest definition of voting with the fewest obstacles, a position that favors their core groups of poor and young voters. Conservatives generally raise questions about whether the system is too open to fraud.

The problems identified in the Pew report are not a question of widespread fraud; rather, the report calls for better use of technology to update voting registration systems. In conjunction with the report, eight states -- Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and Washington -- said they are working on a centralized data system to help identify people whose registrations may be out of date.

“Voter registration is the gateway to participating in our democracy, but these antiquated, paper-based systems are plagued with errors and inefficiencies,” said David Becker, director of election initiatives at the Pew Center on the States. “These problems waste taxpayer dollars, undermine voter confidence, and fuel partisan disputes over the integrity of our elections.”

Outdated systems are also costly, the report found. In 2008, Oregon taxpayers spent $4.11 per active voter to process registrations. By contrast, Canada, which uses modern technology common in the private sector, devotes less than 35 cents per voter to process registrations.

“Proven solutions and technology are already in place in many government offices and the private sector, and states can use them to improve the accuracy, efficiency and cost-effectiveness of their systems,” Becker said. “State leaders from across the country and from both parties are pioneering these solutions. Pew supports their efforts to better serve voters and ensure the integrity of the electoral process.”

The examination of the nation’s voter rolls was commissioned by Pew and undertaken by RTI International, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute.

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, political parties fought over who would be allowed to vote. States separately decide their own election eligibility rules and maintain their own voter rolls.

Barriers to voting such as race and gender fell through the decades, even as new obstacles -- literacy tests and poll taxes -- were imposed by the ruling elites seeking to stay in power. Those obstacles, too, fell, often with the aid of the courts and landmark federal legislation on voting rights.

But the issue of voting access is so politically sensitive, it remains on the national agenda even in the 21st century.

In its most recent report on voting law changes ahead of the 2012 presidential election cycle, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School found that “a wave of legislation tightening restrictions on voting has suddenly swept across the country. More than 5 million Americans could be affected by the new rules already put in place this year -- a number larger than the margin of victory in two of the last three presidential elections.”

States that have already cut back on voting rights will provide 171 electoral votes in 2012 -- 63% of the 270 needed to win the presidency, the center’s report found.

[Updated, 8:42 a.m., Feb. 20: The Pew Center on the States has issued a correction to its recent Pew Elections Initiative report “Inaccurate, Costly and Inefficient.” The center said the report should not have used the term “active” as a qualifier for voter registration lists because the terms “active” and “inactive” have a technical meaning in some but not all states. The numbers in the report remain correct in quantifying the problems with the voter registration lists, according to Pew.]

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-- Michael Muskal

Photo: Harry S. Truman draws a crowd of voters during a whistle-stop tour in 1948 in Texas. Credit: Associated Press

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