Earlier this month Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli became the most recent politician to "cry wolf" over the status of state voter registration rolls. The Virginia attorney general's office has said that after the Board of Elections matched Virginia's voter registration rolls against voter lists in 21 other states, it will investigate several potential cases of duplicate voting.
Reports have gone on to reveal that the Virginia State Board of Elections requested the investigation after returns from a cross-state data matching program discovered more than 308,000 registrations that may represent people on the rolls in Virginia and another state. Voters who were flagged were only matched by first and last name, and birth date.
The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that when the last four digits of the voter's social security number were also used to match voter data, a little over 164,000 voters were found to be registered in other states. As additional steps are taken to properly analyze this list, it will continue to dwindle in size because such matching programs are commonly error-filled. Despite this fact, the Board made a request for an investigation with little evidence of actual misdeeds.
Unfortunately, this process of inaccurately reporting deceiving numbers to insinuate problems with our voting process and potential fraud has become all too common. In 2012, Secretaries of State in Colorado, New Mexico, Florida and other states made similar initial allegations of thousands of non-citizens populating the voter rolls. With time and more thorough investigations, these numbers were shown to be extremely misleading. Florida's initial attempt to identify non-citizens on the voter rolls proved to be an embarrassment as it incorrectly identified and threatened the right to vote of thousands of U.S. citizens.
Unfortunately, by the time real investigations are concluded, media attention has faded away. What is left are misleading headlines that create doubt about the integrity of our democracy and in turn support the adoption of unnecessary laws that disproportionately disenfranchise some of our most vulnerable citizens.
This is not to say the voting rolls are perfect - far from it. A 2012 study by the Pew Center on the States found that 1 in 8 active voter registrations were either invalid or inaccurate. The very nature of voting rolls guarantees that they will always be out of date. Every year, as many as 50 million (1 in 6) Americans move residences, with approximately 45% of the U.S. population moving in any five-year period. Voting rolls are often slow to be updated about individuals who are convicted of a felony, pass away, or are otherwise ineligible to vote.
The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) charges election officials with the duty of being vigilant and keeping the voting lists up-to-date. However, another section of the NVRA requires election officials to follow a specific process to ensure that individuals are not removed incorrectly so they are able to exercise his or her right to vote in an upcoming election.
It is important that election officials keep the voter rolls as clean as possible, but they must be careful not to let false-positive results disenfranchise any citizens. Cross-state database matching can be a useful tool, but it can be a difficult and error-prone process. Virginia's voting rolls are far from perfect, but making outlandish claims does nothing to improve them. We must remember: people listed on the rolls after they have moved or died does not equate to those people voting, but removing someone improperly takes away his or her ability to exercise one of our most sacred rights -the right to vote.
The Commonwealth and its citizens would be better served by giving Virginia election officials the time and resources to properly follow the NVRA's list maintenance procedures without the background noise of politicians casting doubt on the system in order to scare people away or to promote laws that will shut people out. The State Board of Elections knows this and Attorney General Cuccinelli should as well.
Fair Elections Legal Network Senior Counsel Ben Hovland contributed to this piece.