Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Quick Fix for America’s Elections

By Jon N. Hall

On March 12 before the Senate Rules Committee, Missouri Secretary of State Robin Carnahan testified on voter fraud and her opposition to photo ID laws. “A dog has never voted in Missouri, nor has a dead person come from the grave and voted…I think this shows the system is working,” [1] she said. Carnahan went on to assure the committee that there are few election problems and little voter fraud in Missouri. One might doubt her assurances: What are dogs doing on Missouri voter registries?

What’s really disheartening about America’s election problems is that the solution is so very obvious—technology. But few seem willing to seriously consider technological solutions to our election woes. Some states are even regressing back to paper ballots.

In the information technology profession we sometimes describe certain fixes in computer programs as “quick and dirty”. Well, I wanted my fix to be quick and clean. And I wanted it to be as simple and easy on folks as I could make it. My solution is not high-tech, but then it’s not low-tech, either. It’s probably middle-tech, and it’s something that could have and should have been done decades ago.

What I’ve tried to fix is the problem of corrupted voter registries. Because the states have been doing such a poor job of vetting voter registrants—verifying their eligibility—my solution takes that responsibility away from the states. I also wanted to satisfy the demands of those concerned about voter participation. And I wanted to make the process of registration as painless as possible. So my solution does 2 nifty things: It takes away the requirement to register, and yet registers everybody (citizens, that is).

However, the most important feature of this solution vis-à-vis fraud is this: The entire Social Security Number (SSN) is used to create the registries. Currently, this isn’t done. In Missouri, for instance, only the last 4 digits of the SSN are asked for.

(Incidentally, I don’t flatter myself that my solution is particularly brilliant. In fact, it’s the kind of solution that any competent computer programmer worth a hoot would think of between sips of coffee on an early Monday morning while he’s slowly letting up on the clutch trying to ease his brain into gear. In the parlance of the day, it’s “a no-brainer”. It’s a typical data processing type of solution, which I imagine has occurred to other computer programmers, causing them to wonder: Why aren’t we doing this?)


Whenever a dog, a cat, a dead person, a person in a coma or in a persistent vegetative state or in a nursing home suffering from Alzheimer’s, a felon, an illegal alien, or any otherwise ineligible “voter” appears on a voter registry, or whenever anyone appears on more than one voter registry, an eligible voter is in jeopardy of having his vote cancelled out. And if anyone uses someone else’s registration or a registration established by fraud to actually cast a vote in an American election, an American citizen will have been effectively disenfranchised. His vote will have been nullified, his birthright stolen.

Throughout America, the flimsiest of IDs can get just about anyone put on a voter registry, allowing ineligibles to vote. Also, voter registries are not kept current. For instance, the dead are often not purged from voter registries for years, allowing the living to use their registrations to vote “for them”. And then there’s the failure to purge those who have moved to another state, such as Faye Buis-Ewing, which makes it possible to vote twice.

If voter registries are corrupted, how can we be assured of clean fair elections, the cornerstone of democracy?

If you are a taxpaying law-abiding American citizen, you should have little doubt that the government knows your whereabouts. If you fail to pay your income tax on time, you can be assured that the IRS will descend upon you; come to your house; perhaps even seize it. And if you run afoul of the law, the FBI, despite its computer problems, will most likely find you. (That is, unless you’re part of the criminal underworld. In which case, who cares if you can’t vote.) And you’d better hope the feds know where to send your tax refunds and benefit checks.

Certain politicians have long insisted that voter registration should be easier. But if the government already has all your data, including your address, why do they require you to register? Isn’t the requirement to register a bit like a retailer making you scan your credit card for each and every item you’re buying, rather than just once?

Friends, I’m here to tell you: You shouldn’t have to register to vote—the government should do it for you. Here’s how: The feds would write computer programs to extract each eligible citizen’s data from the Social Security Administration (SSA) database, and then send the data to the states, which would use it to create the voter registries.

The primary virtue of this method is: Only citizens would be registered. And furthermore, each citizen would be on one and only one state registry, unlike today. You could think of the SSA database as the “National Voter Registry”.

And another thing, all those volunteers laboring to get folks registered would be free to volunteer for some other noble work—everyone would be automatically registered.


If you question the feasibility of this reform, don’t feel like the Lone Ranger—I did, too. I had no doubts about my idea; it’s pretty simple. But we’re talking about the federal government here; perhaps there was some obscure something I didn’t know about. Also, I’d never worked for the feds, nor was I familiar with their databases. So I thought I better rummage through federal websites just to be sure all the information was where I thought it should be—on the SSA database.

But first, what is this information? It’s actually precious little (example here). To place an American citizen on his correct voter registry requires just 3 pieces of information: personal identification, date of birth, and address. (Incidentally, the data is so tiny the entire U.S. electorate could fit on an iPod.)

The SSA places folks on the SSA database soon after birth and naturalization, which includes name and date of birth. So the entire issue of feasibility seemed to boil down to this question: Does the SSA keep our addresses current (updated) on its database? If so, my reform would seem quite doable.

I knew that employers were already accessing the SSA database through the Department of Homeland Security’s internet-based E-Verify system to validate data on Form I-9, required of all new hires. And one of the items of information on Form I-9 is—address.

So I went to the SSA website, and there in the upper right of the screen was QUESTIONS, a drop-down menu containing Change of Address. But I discovered that the SSA doesn't carry addresses for folks who aren't receiving benefits.

There appeared to be a fly in my dang ointment—I had hit a snag. But I would not be denied; perhaps the screen was wrong and needed updating. So I telephoned USCIS, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, to see if their E-Verify system allows employers to verify the address on Form I-9 in addition to the SSN. A polite helpful federal employee told me it did not.

Then it occurred to me that I myself regularly receive notices via snail-mail from the SSA, even though I’m not receiving benefits. Poking around a bit more in the SSA website, I read that the SSA gets the addresses for those notices from the IRS.

Bottom line: My reform needs something besides the extract program. There are many ways to skin a cat, but here’s what I think the feds could do:

The SSA database should “carry” the residential addresses for ALL citizens, not just those receiving benefits. The SSA would get this information from the IRS database. For many Americans, our address on the IRS database is identical to our voter registration address. These folks would be set, and wouldn’t need to do anything. But others would need to change their address on the IRS database, using IRS Form 8822.

Under my reform, “voter registration” devolves into nothing more than keeping the feds informed of your residential address. This would be the citizen’s only responsibility in “voter registration”. And you’re already doing this when you file your 1040 tax return. But if you relocate just before an election, you would use Form 8822. (The SSA even allows folks to change their address online.)

However, under my reform, even if you failed to inform the feds of your new address in time for an election, you’d still be registered to vote, albeit at your old address.

(A possible side benefit of having the addresses of all citizens on the SSA database is that it might help employer’s detect stolen SSNs when using E-verify. It would provide one more datum to triangulate on. Since identity theft has become such a big issue, America would approve.)


The whole point behind my reform is this: Voter registries should be derived from a single centralized database. Computer professionals understand the necessity of this. Anything less leaves our elections wide open to fraud and error. Insofar as data about American citizens is concerned, the SSA database is the Holy of Holies. At least, it better be. If you can’t trust it, you can’t trust anything. The SSA database is the font from which our national identities flow.

The absurdity of our current voter registration system isn’t just that American citizens are required to give government information it already has. It’s that it demands a tremendous amount of extra work and expense, all of which is unnecessary.

What’s even more ridiculous is the requirement to sign affidavits affirming that we are citizens and that we aren’t felons. Doesn’t government know whether we’ve been through its judicial system or not? The absurdity is compounded because registrars don’t have the means to verify our affidavits. That would entail the SSN. But the registrars are forbidden to ask for that. Voter registration is entirely on the “honor system”, except without the honor and the system. (Sí, Se Puede, amigo mio.)

And then to top it off, we end up with registries they are unreliable, corrupted. Wouldn’t it be better to have computers create our registries for us? All it would involve is a few dinky little computer programs that could probably be written before lunch.

So why is government making the citizenry jump through all these hoops? Why is government dumping so much work on unpaid volunteers? (Might these volunteers someday up and quit?) Why does government persist in its backward ways? The least uncomplimentary explanation is: the inertia of Congress.

Congress is great when it comes to doing the really heroic things, such as changing the light bulbs in the Capitol to compact fluorescents. But for lesser things, like bringing integrity to America’s elections, Congress needs a committee, and a study, and a report, and…well, we really need to see how they do things in Europe. Mustn’t be precipitate.

I’m not a lawyer, but I do believe my reform would require federal legislation. This is because election law is a state matter. So my reform would have to be imposed on the states by the feds. This is the real snag in my reform: getting the Do Nothing Congress to do something. This is where the “quick” part of my “quick fix” might break down. The rest of it is pretty simple stuff.

The federal government has within its means the wherewithal to create voter registries that are correct. Will it do so?

My reform actually hands the states their voter registries—on a silver platter. When the states receive their registries, they would then apply state law to them. This would mainly consist of identifying the voters who are ineligible due to state law, such as felons, and deleting them from their registry. After this is done, the states would have finalized their registries; they then would create signature rosters for each precinct, and their election could proceed.


Arizona is currently the only state to require proof of citizenship to register to vote. Arizona is also the only state to require all employers to use E-Verify. (Arizona is also home to one of America’s finest law enforcement officers: Sheriff Joe Arpaio.) Arizona seems to be more sophisticated and more advanced on these issues than other states. But then it has to be; Arizona is on the front lines of an invasion from the South.

But Arizona’s new requirements don’t do anything about those already registered. Shouldn’t Arizona require those registrants to come back and present proof of citizenship? With my reform, Arizona, along with the rest of the nation, could be assured of the citizenship of its voter registrants.

The new voter ID laws are inadequate; they go only so far. They don’t identify those already registered who shouldn’t be; they don’t correct registries; they’re just concerned with new registrants. With my reform, the states would receive new registries just before their elections, and these registries would reflect all the changes in address and eligibility since the last election.


If we really want to ensure the integrity of our elections, not only would we use the SSN to create our voter registries, we’d require the voter to produce his SSN when voting.

But can you imagine the hubbub from the American Civil Liberties Union if polling stations started demanding the SSN to vote? The ACLU is apoplectic over even a photo ID requirement. (The ACLU doesn't like E-Verify, either.)

On January 9 during oral arguments in the Indiana photo ID case before the Supreme Court, Justice Alito pointedly asked, “Is it your position that a state can’t require any form of identification and can only require a signature?”

The photo ID is the most minimal form of ID, yet the ACLU objects to it. (By the way, are polling stations in Indiana going to carry photos of their registrants? You know, so they can match them to the voters’ photo IDs?)

The SSN is a far more powerful form of identification than a photo. Requiring the SSN to vote would obviate the photo ID requirement. And seniors, whom the ACLU cares so much about, are the ones most likely to actually know their SSN, since they’re receiving social security benefits. Of course, requiring the voter to produce his SSN to vote would entail having his SSN at the polling stations, so the 2 can be matched. Which means the feds would have sent the SSN to the states along with the other registration data.

The NYTimes recently related the case of 78-year-old St. Louis resident Lillie Lewis and her difficulty in obtaining a photo ID. “I have voted in almost all of the presidential races going back I can’t remember how long, but if they tell me I need a passport or birth certificate that’ll be the end of that”, she said. How can government place such burdens on senior citizens? With my reform, the only ID Ms. Lewis would need to present at the polls would be her SSN. With my reform, the difficulty folks are having in obtaining the documents needed to get a photo ID would just float away.

If America were ever to migrate to a fully computerized, state-of-the-art system which allowed folks to vote at home or from abroad using the internet, I can assure you: The SSN will be required to vote. Until such time, we should require the SSN be written on any and all paper ballots, especially provisional and absentee ballots, the source of so many of our woes.

I’m always amazed when I encounter someone who hasn’t memorized his SSN. The reason the SSN is so important is that it is a “unique identifier”; no one else can share it. Unique identifiers are used throughout contemporary America for all manner of things. They’re what allow businesses to keep track of their inventories, and brokerages and banks to balance accounts down to the penny. Even banks themselves have their own unique identifiers: the routing number you enter on your 1040 form. The necessity of unique identifiers for life as we know it requires no discussion. Yet, we do not currently demand that voters produce their unique identifiers, even though they all have them.

Do you do online banking? The only online banking I do is transfer money between my accounts, and I don’t logon to the net to do so. I just pick up the phone and start punching numbers, and the first number I punch in is my dear old SSN. Then I have to punch in my PIN number and the numbers of the accounts from which and to which I’m transferring money. Such a transfer is done in real time, so I have access to the money immediately. Try that with a photo ID.

How concerned would you be if every monthly statement you received from your bank had errors on it, or showed other folks using your account? You’d be outraged. You’d drop your account pronto and sue the bums. Yet that is exactly the sort of thing the American People countenance with their elections. Elections should be more like banking and other enterprises that strive for data perfection.

The thing is: You can’t pay your taxes, nor get a job, nor even open a checking account without surrendering your SSN. But the ACLU seems to think you should be allowed to vote for the Leader of the Free World with a utility bill. (Why not a laundry ticket?)

The SSN is the de facto national ID. So the unauthorized creation of an SSN and, especially, the theft of an SSN are very serious crimes, and should be punished by very serious hard time. (I’d prefer such perps be drawn and quartered, but that’s just me.)

As long as we re-use the numbers of deceased citizens in a timely fashion, the SSN will be sufficient as long as our population stays below 1 Billion. So the SSN won’t present any Y2K-type problems for a good while.

If you were really obsessive-compulsive about ensuring election perfection, you’d not only require the SSN at the polls, you’d require fingerprints and a retinal scan, as well.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves; first we must fix the registries.


Creating voter registries by the method just outlined would by no means end all voter fraud, but it would make it harder to commit. Also, this method would render irrelevant such things as the Motor Voter act of 1993, which is reason enough to adopt it.

So much of what Congress and the states have done in recent years has exacerbated the problems in our elections. In trying to make registration and voting easier and more convenient, they’ve made a mountain of extra work for registrars and poll workers. In short, our elected officials have actually flung open the doors to voter fraud, made it easier to commit. They’ve complicated things, but provided no means by which to ensure that our elections are right. And again, the means by which to ensure that our elections are right is technology.

As someone who has worked on computers for years, I can see absolutely no technological reason why our elections cannot have the same precision and reliability that our banking, securities, and other computer-based enterprises have. There’s nothing to keep us from having perfect elections; elections where we know what the correct vote counts are and can prove it. We just have to get up to snuff on our technology.

However, there doesn’t seem to be much will on the part of our elected officials to move toward complete computerization of our elections, nor much interest in it. It’s easy to think that our elected officials have contempt for the voter.

But regardless of whether we upgrade to a 21st century system anytime soon or not, we still need to derive our voter registries from a single centralized database. Even if all the states were to regress back to paper ballots, this reform would still be sorely needed, even more so. It would help prevent fraud, and compared to other reforms, fixes and upgrades would be much cheaper and far quicker.

Jon N. Hall is a mainframe programmer/analyst from Kansas City.

[1] David Goldstein, “Voter I.D. debate centers on pooch”, THE KANSAS CITY STAR, March 13, 2008, B2 (The pooch in question was the infamous Ritzy Mekler)

No comments: