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Don’t Interpret New Law to Keep People From Voting

Published: March 27, 2005

Albany Times Union
March 27, 2005

Don’t interpret new law to keep people from voting
By Wendy Weiser and Lawrence Norden

Republicans and Democrats can probably agree that no matter how hard they try, bureaucracies will never be perfect. Even the best bureaucrats will sometimes make mistakes.

Unfortunately for New Yorkers, our state Senate has decided that when it comes to the right to vote, citizens should pay the price for those bureaucratic mistakes: They should be barred from voting. In the next few days, reasonable voices in the Senate and Assembly must make sure that this dangerous idea does not become law.

New York, like nearly every other state, is debating how to implement the Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress after the 2000 election. HAVA was intended to ensure that voting and election administration systems “will be the most convenient, accessible, and easy to use for voters.”

HAVA requires each state to ask newly registered voters for their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their Social Security number. If an applicant has neither, the state must assign him or her a special ID number “for voter registration purposes.”

These ID numbers will allow the state to maintain accurate voter registration lists. If Joan Smith moves from Suffolk County to Westchester County, her driver’s license number will not change. When she reregisters to vote in Westchester County, election officials will see the same driver’s license number in two counties, and know that Smith’s registration in Suffolk County is no longer valid. ID numbers will also allow election officials to make sure the information they have entered in their databases from voter registration forms is correct and current.

The state Senate has decided that requiring identification numbers can serve another purpose: to keep people from voting. Specifically, Senate Bill No. 1810 assumes that boards of elections will reject “voter registration application(s) for failing to” provide ID numbers that match with state records.

Here’s the problem: Election officials will have to input the applicant’s ID number (such as a driver’s license) before they can check whether the number matches with state records (such as Department of Motor Vehicle records.) And elections officials, like all people, sometimes make mistakes. Imagine an election official entering thousands of handwritten, nine-digit driver’s license numbers, day after day. How many mistakes might he make?

If you’re thinking, “a lot,” you’re right. Before Election Day 2004, New York City election officials processed thousands of new registration applications. Of the approximately 15,000 voters who provided their driver’s license numbers on their registration forms, nearly 20 percent did not have matching numbers in the DMV database.

Subsequent investigation revealed that 99.7 percent of these mismatches were the result of errors made by elections officials when they input the identification numbers into their database. Even if election officials are required to check for typos, this error rate is too big to ignore. And they won’t catch typos in the existing state records. The Social Security Administration has said that its database produces at least a 10 percent error rate.

Supporters of the Senate bill might argue that we can do better than New York City election workers did in 2004. We can institute more controls and hire more workers. Perhaps. But it’s beside the point. Election officials are dealing with millions of voters. Like any human dealing with so many voters and forms, they are bound to make some mistakes.

In the coming days, the Assembly and Senate will negotiate the various HAVA-related bills that each chamber has passed. They should reject S.1810. New York does not need an election law that allows officials to use inescapable bureaucratic error as a reason to bar thousands of eligible New Yorkers from voting.

Wendy Weiser is a staff attorney and Lawrence Norden is a volunteer attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.