October 18, 2008
Vote early, if you can

You're going to hear a lot of exhortations to vote early over the next two weeks. But if you registered to vote near the deadline, you may not be able to, at least right off.

The voters will be allowed to cast ballots but may have to fill out special forms at polling stations or wait a few days before voting, according to state and Houston-area election administrators.

Officials blame a deadline-beating rush of registration applications before Oct. 6, and maintenance to a computer database of Social Security numbers, for the fact that many registrations won't be processed in time for the early voting kickoff.

In Houston, about 70 employees in the voter registrar's office will work through the weekend to clear most of a backlog of about 30,000 applications, Tax Assessor-Collector Paul Bettencourt said Friday. Some will turn out to be valid, others duplicates or address changes for voters on the rolls.

But, he said, perhaps 7,000 applications from Harris County residents will require extra verification and probably won't be cleared before Monday, the first of 12 days of early voting at 36 county locations.

The Secretary of State's Office in Austin must also verify the applications, using driver's license and partial Social Security numbers, before voters are added to lists in each county of qualified voters.

But as the state agency works through the weekend to handle applications submitted by counties, it will take about 24 hours to approve each new voter.

"We were keeping up very well with the increased load, but we started to run a little behind when the Social Security Administration closed their (computer program) down for maintenance last weekend," said Ashley Burton, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Hope Andrade.

"Since the start of October there has been a huge increase in the number of new voter records that the counties have submitted for verification," she said.

Bear in mind that a big part of the reason for all this delay and wheel-spinning is that the Social Security database itself isn't all that reliable, which can result in "disenfranchisement by typo". I've noted before that an awful lot of the voter registration activity, especially in Harris County, has been to re-qualify perfectly legal and eligible voters who got removed from the rolls for the sin of having moved. As Matthew Yglesias points out, we could make it a lot easier for these folks to get back into the good graces of our keepers of the qualified lists:

As you know, I'm in the process of moving to a condo I recently bought. As part of that process, I just used the US Postal Service's convenient online change of address application that quite neatly lets you forward your mail. It would be possible for a country that was really committed to running sound elections to put a step in that process where you can check a box to change your voter registration. Then if you checked the box, the information would be conveyed to the relevant authorities and just as your mail would start magically showing up at your new address, so, to, would you suddenly be registered to vote at the new place.

But of course we don't live in a country like that. Instead, we live in a country where in order to vote I would need to separately change my information with the DC Board of Elections. Except I can't actually change my registration because it's too late. Consequently, Matthew Yglesias, a United States citizen over the age of 18 and lacking a felony record, nonetheless doesn't seem to have any pathway to legal voting. A country with a modern constitution would probably establish an affirmative right to vote for adult citizens, requiring that election administrators make it possible for all qualified voters to cast legal ballots. Instead, we began as a country with a sharply restricted franchise. Over time, we've created various rules saying you can't disqualify a voter for certain reasons. You can't disallow my vote on the basis or race, religion, or gender. Nor can you decide that I'm too young to vote. But there's no amendment protecting the right of people who've moved recently to vote.

And so the process is hard because we choose to make it hard. And we wring our hands and say to the thousands of applicants who will be inconvenienced, or told they just missed the deadline, that there's nothing we can do about it. There is, we just don't want to do it. And this is the result:

About 1.94 million voters will be eligible to cast ballots this year in Harris County, roughly the same number for the last presidential election. The statewide voter roll has edged up to 13.4 million, about 300,000 more than last time.

For a county that's grown by a couple hundred thousand people since 2004, that's really a disgrace. What it is not, however, is an accident. It was a choice, and as long as we have a voter registrar who's more interested in purging the rolls than in adding to them, it's what we'll get. Thankfully, we have the opportunity to make a better choice. It's up to us.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on October 18, 2008 to Election 2008

Someone stole my Skelly sign from my front yard!!!

Posted by: Peter Wang on October 18, 2008 1:16 PM
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