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Advocates Urge Wisconsin to Avoid Error-laden Matching Practice in Voter Registration Law

The Brennan Center sent the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board a letter urging the state not to adopt a “no match, no vote” policy that would prevent eligible voters from casting regular ballots if the state cannot match their applications with other government databases.

Agosto 26, 2008
For Immediate Release:

Contact: Tim Bradley, BerlinRosen Public Affairs, 646–452–5637
Adam Skaggs, Brennan Center for Justice, 212–992–8976

Voter Registration Law Could Disenfranchise Thousands of Eligible Wisconsin Voters in 2008

Madison, WI – Today voting rights advocates from the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University cautioned Wisconsin election officials that thousands of eligible Wisconsin citizens could be disenfranchised in the 2008 election if the state adopts a strict “no match, no vote” policy that would prevent eligible voters from casting regular ballots if the state cannot match their applications with other government databases.

In a 5-page letter submitted to the state’s Government Accountability Board on Monday, advocates wrote that it is inconsistent with the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002 and the voter registration policies of forty-six states, as well as the District of Columbia, to force applicants to use provisional ballots, rather than regular ballots, if the state fails to match their registrations with motor vehicle or Social Security databases and the voters do not bring acceptable proof of residence to the polls.

The letter comes in response to an August 14th letter from the Republican Party of Wisconsin that urged the Government Accountability Board to enforce such a “matching” provision and incorrectly claimed that such a policy is required by HAVA. The Board intends to revisit the issue later this week.

“Changing the rules at the eleventh hour is always a dangerous proposition, and that’s particularly true here because the proposal would relegate thousands of eligible voters to voting provisional ballots,” said Adam Skaggs, Brennan Center Counsel. “During the 2008 presidential primary election, fewer than one-third of the provisional ballots cast in Wisconsin were ultimately counted, so any rule that would increase the number of provisional ballots should be avoided. Nothing in federal law requires voters to be relegated to provisional ballot status, much less purged from registration lists, because the state has been unable to match information provided in their registration against other government databases,” he continued.

“The matching regime proposed to the GAB would place the state squarely in violation of federal law designed to protect eligible voters from being wrongly taken off registration lists. We urge the Government Accountability Board to avoid any actions that would result in significant numbers of Wisconsin voters being denied their right to vote in November,” stated Professor Dan Tokaji of the Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University.

According to HAVA, first-time voters who register by mail can verify their identity either by being matched with existing government databases or by providing identification when they register or vote. HAVA thus protects the rights of these un-matched voters by letting them vote regular ballots if they show ID; only those un-matched new voters who registered by mail and do not present identification documents are to be given provisional ballots under HAVA’s “Fail-Safe Voting” provision.

Matching voter registration information with motor vehicle and Social Security Administration records is also a notoriously error-laden practice. A similar provision was struck down in 2006 by a federal judge in Washington State, and California, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Texas have all abandoned similar rules.

Matches fail for many reasons—even when an applicant is entirely eligible, provides complete and accurate information on his or her application, and lives at his or her stated address: there are often typos made when processing applications, data entry errors in the motor vehicle and Social Security databases, inconsistent uses of nicknames or married and maiden names, and problems with hyphenated or compound last names.

For example, a citizen registering as “Bill” might not “match” if his Social Security number is issued under “William”; a woman’s married name might not match against a database that has her maiden name; and in the 2006 Washington State case, one woman was barred from the rolls when her birthday was mistakenly entered into the system as “1976” instead of “1975”.

“We agree wholeheartedly that it should be easy for Wisconsin’s voters to vote, and that appropriate measures should be taken to ensure that Wisconsin’s elections are free from fraud. Utilizing voter databases in a manner that is consistent with HAVA will accomplish this goal and prevent unintended disenfranchisement. Disenfranchisement, however, will be the inevitable result if the Wisconsin starts tying voters’ rights to an error-prone matching game,” stated Skaggs.

The Brennan Center’s full letter can be viewed here.