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Lawsuit Predicts Widespread Voter Disenfranchisement

May 24, 2006

For Immediate Release
Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Contact Information:
Scott Schell, Brennan Center, 917 226–0237
Adam Glickman, SEIU 775, 206 295–9613
Kevin Whelan, ACORN, 985 960–1108

Lawsuit Predicts Widespread Voter Disenfranchisement in Washington Unless New Election Law is Fixed Crucial Steps to Protect Voters Rights Needed
Sec. of State Will Need to Review Tens of Thousands of Registration Applications before Nov. 7, 2006

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON—A coalition of citizens and groups concerned about voting rights today asked a federal court in Seattle to block implementation of a five-month-old state election law. The law (RCW 29A.08.107) bars citizens from voting this fall unless the Secretary of State first succeeds in matching ID data on a registration application usually a drivers license or Social Security number with existing government databases.

Federal law requires each state to create a database of registered voters. The vast majority will do so without adopting a no match, no vote rule like the one challenged in Washington.

We still have time to avoid a scar on Washingtons elections later this year, said Wendy Weiser, counsel for the coalition and deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. But not unless the no match, no vote rule is overturned. Otherwise, the new matching requirement will saddle the people of Washington and state election officials with an impossible bureaucratic burden between now and Election Day.

People often have a tendency to get seduced by technology, and I fear our lawmakers may have fallen into that trap, said Reverend John Boonstra, Executive Minister of Washington Association of Churches and a plaintiff in the suit. Theyre asking computers to accurately identify eligible voters in a way that exceeds the limits of human error in entering data. Subjecting civil rights to technology can be a bad idea.

The absence of a match between data on a registration form and data held in a government computer occurs for many reasons having nothing to do with voter eligibility:

  • Human error by government election workers, including misspelling of names, omitting or adding letters in a name, and transposing numbers in a Social Security or drivers license ID
  • Asian-Americans, American Indians, and Alaska Natives with names that are especially prone to multiple English spellings, or flipping of first and last names
  • Married women who have taken hyphenated names or their husbands names but have not yet seen those changes recognized throughout the bureaucracy
  • Inconsistent use of nicknames; inconsistent punctuation of names containing apostrophes or hyphens;
  • Computer errors caused by file corruption from computer viruses
  • Absence of uniformity in maintaining, storing, and transferring computer data.
These sources of error will confront election officials with tens of thousands of bureaucracy-generated mistakes preventing eligible citizens from voting. Even under the best case scenario, disenfranchisement will be widespread. The only question is how many voters will be denied.

The matching system adopted by the state contains serious flaws, confirmed Professor Alon Halevy of the Computer Science and Engineering Department at the University of Washington, who has spent years studying advanced techniques in matching data. Given the number of applications we typically see, were likely to have many thousands of eligible voters wrongly rejected.

State election officials are likely to face a vast pool of at least 88,000 registration forms requiring review because of voter-supplied data that fails to match database information.

This is a conservative estimate based upon two figures: (i) the 440,887 voter registration applications received by Washington State four years ago in the last mid-term election cycle; and (ii) a 20% rate of erroneous discrepancies (false negatives) between voter-supplied data and database information. The 20% discrepancy rate is substantially lower than the 28.5% discrepancy rate documented in efforts to match information with the U.S. Social Security database, and in line with voter registration processing in similar systems tested in Virginia (20%); Los Angeles County (18%); New York City (20%); and elsewhere.

Based on past experience in Washington, at least 15% of the registration applications, will likely hit the election system in the 30 days before October 7, the registration deadline this year. At this rate, election officials will be faced with over 13,000 failed registrations right before Election Day.

Im worried by the potential for a civic disaster within our community, said Alaric Bien, Executive Director of the Chinese Information & Service Center. Washingtons Asian Americans have become increasingly active in politics. Now, someone unfamiliar with Asian names may cause widespread disenfranchisement, focused on first time voters. It will cut voters down just when theyre learning to stand up and be counted.

No amount of good intentions on the part of state election officials will protect eligible voters from being barred from the polls, said Clare Crawford, Regional Field Director for the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). A no match, no vote rule will mistakenly reject too many registration applications, too close to the election. The system just cant shoulder that burden.

Plaintiffs joining the complaint filed today include: Washington Association of Churches, Washington Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), Service Employees International Union, 775 (SEIU), Washington Citizens Action, Organization of Chinese-Americans (Greater Seattle Chapter), Chinese Information and Service Center, Korean American Voters Alliance, and Filipino American Political Action Group of Washington.

Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, based in New York City, represents plaintiffs as pro bono co-counsel. Robert A. Atkins, leader of the Paul Weiss team, underscored the stakes in the lawsuit: No right is more vital than a citizens right to vote. Thats why were dedicated to supporting this effort.

Justin Levitt, a Brennan Center attorney, added: The goal of making sure that every eligible citizen is able to get on and stay on the voter rolls requires great vigilance by election officials. The work is always a big challenge, never more so than in a time of transition defined by new technologies. Washington State can avoid the problem it faces. We want to be part of the solution.

The Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law works to ensure adoption of practical election procedures that foster full and equal political participation. Two months ago, the Center published Making the List, an unprecedented survey of new voter registration programs adopted by the states in accordance with federal mandates under the Help America Vote Act. Making the List offers the first and still only review of state matching protocols such as the system challenged in Washington.