Data should dictate voting rights

Data should dictate voting rights

Determining who is eligible to vote has become a political lightning rod. Several states have enacted new laws related to voting rights, some more restrictive and some more expansive. Are these actions creating appropriate protections, egregious barriers, or reasonable accommodations? News of such activities exacerbates ongoing conflicts between Republican and Democratic lawmakers as they set the stage for the 2022 midterm elections, with control of the Senate and the House up for grabs. 

The general trend is that Republicans want to make the voter registration process as stringent as possible, while Democrats want to make the process as accessible as possible. As such, Republicans want to guard against voter fraud, namely ineligible voters casting ballots, eligible voters casting multiple ballots, or votes cast in the name of eligible voters by other people. Democrats want to guard against voter suppression, namely eligible voters not having access to ballots or eligible voters not having their votes counted.  

Both these activities transform the voting process into a political issue. Upon closer examination, it should be a data issue.   

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The U.S. Constitution defines who is eligible to vote. In general, a person must be a U.S. citizen over 18 years old by Election Day. Some states forbid felons, those incarcerated, and those mentally incapacitated from voting. Those voting in state elections must also satisfy state residency requirements. 

Putting aside partisan posturing, two benchmarks must be satisfied: verifying the eligibility of each person who voted and matching each vote cast to exactly one eligible voter. Violating any one of these criteria is sufficient to invalidate a vote.   

Maintaining and updating voter registration databases is necessary to confirm whether the eligibility criteria are satisfied. For the majority of people, such information is readily available in one or more state databases, from agencies like the motor vehicle administration, state revenue, state corrections, professional licensing and social services, amongst others.   

Data sharing creates a passive approach to assess voter eligibility. The challenge is for the different databases to communicate with each other, allowing for passive voter eligibility verification.    

A more active approach requires states to create mechanisms for people to provide such information, including mailings and mobile voter registration kiosks. Using multiple vectors to verify eligibility builds integrity into the election process. Just because a person has not participated in an election recently does not mean they are ineligible to vote.   

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Many new laws challenge the issue of whether states should take an opt-in or opt-out approach for voter registration. Given that the constitution defines voter eligibility, everyone who satisfies the criteria should be registered to vote, with the option to opt-out by not exercising their right to vote. 

Voter eligibility and vote validation do not demand that every voter and every vote be scrutinized. There is a government precedent for this. 

Much like how the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) uses its risk-based PreCheck program, whereby prescreening passengers allows for expedited airport physical screening without compromising overall air system security, the same principle can be applied for vetting voters and votes cast. Those voters whose eligibility can be verified from databases and whose ballot can be validated either when voting in person (with a government-issued photo ID) or with appropriate technologies when voting by mail (like signature matching) require no vetting (top-down). Others will involve more review (bottom-up), much like how non-Precheck passengers are physically screened with enhanced procedures at airports. Such a system-wide process would improve the integrity of elections. Is it no coincidence that the goal is for every eligible vote to be counted and every ineligible vote discarded, much like election security?  

Voter verification and validation demand both a top-down and bottom-up process, relying upon data and risk-based principles to protect election security. Database sharing and systems exist to take the politics out of voting. Unfortunately, the very people who can facilitate such changes are also the same people who have the most to lose from them. Voting is a constitutional right and privilege. Let’s keep it that way. 

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a founder professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based assessment to evaluate and inform public policy. His research on risk-based security provided the foundational concepts that led to TSA PreCheck.