This story was written by Bilal A. Siddiqui, Harvard Crimson
Voters are the lifeblood of a democracy. Since the end of primary season, both campaigns have organized conspicuous voter registration drives to draw people to the voting booths on Nov. 4. But for all the attention that swelling voter rolls have attracted, a disturbing trend in the opposite direction has emerged. Thousands of names across the country have been stricken from voter registration records in a number of locales, some in key swing states. While voter registration rolls must be kept up-to-date and accurate, consistent standards among states and transparency of the voter purging process will ensure freer and fairer elections in the future.
Of course, voter purging is a legitimate process. States monitor their voter registration lists to remove names of ineligible voters, such as those who have moved or died and duplicates. Under the 2002 Help American Vote Act a broadly focused piece of legislation passed in large part due to the controversy over vote counting in the 2000 presidential election each state must maintain a computerized list of registered voters. The intent of such a list is to expedite management by quickly correcting mismatches. Because of the nature of the electoral system in the United States, where each state possesses its own lists of registered voters, different standards are in place for determining voter ineligibility and removal from the voter registration roll.
The crux of the issue is that a problem emerges when these standards are unclear or improperly applied. Several key states have been heavily affected. For instance, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the state of Michigan last month. The ACLU focused in particular on two of the states standards that will immediately nullify a voters registration: if he or she obtains a drivers license in another state and if the mailed voter cards are returned by the post office as undeliverable. This case highlights the problem with inconsistent voter registration standards. Differing standards between states can cause confusion for new voters, and in particular for college students who frequently travel back and forth between states.
This problem is compounded by the lack of transparency in states procedures for maintaining voter lists. A study by The New York Times indicated that Colorado, Louisiana, and Michigan all had a decline in the membership on voter lists since August 1 of this year that cannot be explained by deaths and emigration alone. Colorado, for instance, which has had not only a number of highly visible registration drives but a net increase in population, has shown a net loss of 100,000 voters since 2004. A report from the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law pointed out a case where a Mississippi voting official accidentally erased the records of ten thousand voters from her home computer. Whether political motivation was involved or not is difficult to ascertain, mostly because standards are so unclear.
Fortunately, the current explosion of Web 2.0 solutions appears perfectly poised to democratize further the voting process. Ideally, the names and registration status of all voters could be made publicly available on the state website. Each person would be able to identify his or her own voting status directly and ensure that the proper forms have been filed and any holds released. Anybody who has been wrongfully removed from the rolls will be able to report it, easing the strain on voting officials and shortening the lines on Election Day.
Whether any of the voter purges in this election were politically motivated will probably not be revealed for some time to come. Regardless, an independent, transparent system is necessary to ensure the functioning of a stable democracy. Immediately, HAVA legislation can be extnded to standardize this process. In the long run, Web 2.0 capabilities should be integrated into the registration system to increase transparency of and access to information that is so vital for American voters.