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The quite official looking envelope received by a local resident.

NEVADA CITY, Calif. September 14, 2016 – Registering new voters is a laudable undertaking. But when bad data strikes, efforts can be fraught with problems and undermine voter confidence in the election process. Right now, the Nevada County Elections Office is spending many hours dealing with the fallout of a registration drive by the Voter Participation Center, all while preparing for the November Presidential Election.

The Voter Participation Center, a non-profit organization based in Washington DC, has sent some 4.6 million letters to Californians with voter registration cards urging the recipients to register to vote. The 12-year old organization is conducting a nationwide registration drive via mail only. However, some of the recipients, including in Nevada County, are not eligible to vote.

Bad data on display. Identifying information has been redacted.

The Elections Office received numerous registration cards with notes indicating the voters’ displeasure and anxiety.

Assistant Registrar of Voters Sandy Sjoberg stated, “Our fear is that voters will sign the voter-registration card without verifying their data as being correct. We received approximately 35 cards back on Tuesday without any notes. We will have to utilize staff time to go through each record to make sure we do not compromise our data before we process the affidavit card. Furthermore, we received roughly 15 cards with notes from voters stating that either the person named in the completed registration card was deceased or a green card holder.”

Sjoberg also expressed misgivings about the methods VPC uses to check the data before flooding a state with registration cards. “California has a motor voter law in effect already. We go to great lengths to make sure everyone is registered correctly and with the affiliation of their choice. Also, these cards have no checkbox to become a vote by mail voter.”

She has a stack of invalid registrations with comments she will be faxing back to VPC. Nevada County is not the only county dealing with the issue. Secretary of State Alex Padilla released a statement which reads, in part: “It is important that organizations conducting voter registration drives through the mail ensure that their voter data is up-to-date and accurate.  Causing confusion right before an election is wrong.”

VPC response

The VPC notice sent to a Nevada County resident.

YubaNet contacted Voter Participation Center (VPC) and asked about the organization’s method of data cross-checks and the purpose of the drive.

Jim Popkin, a spokesperson for VPC, stated in a phone interview that VPC’s goal was to increase registration of traditionally underrepresented groups like unmarried women, millennials and minority groups.

In an on-the-record statement, Page Gardner, Founder and President, Voter Participation Center explained: “To provide transparency, all our forms clearly state that they come from the Voter Participation Center, a non-governmental organization, and one dedicated to increasing the participation of historically underrepresented Americans. We make it simple to check your registration status online, and to be removed from our mailing list if we’ve sent you mail in error. Unfortunately, no state makes available a list of individuals who are unregistered to vote.  As a result, VPC must use commercially available residential databases and match them to the state’s voter file to determine who is unregistered and otherwise eligible.  VPC spends significant resources to fine tune its lists and mail only to unregistered, eligible voters.  VPC uses many ‘protocol improvements’ that are designed to make these lists more accurate, and to reduce mailings sent to people and addresses that should not receive them.

VPC ran into similar problems in 2008 and 2012, according to the Wikipedia page on the organization. Popkin assured YubaNet the only way voters are contacted is via mail, no robocalls or in person solicitations. He also stated that the percentage of ineligible voters receiving their letters only amounted to a fraction of one percent.

Not all data is good

Using “commercially available databases” to identify unregistered but eligible voters is where the process breaks down in some cases. While VPC states “more than 50,000 voter-registration applications from California [have been] mailed in over the past few days,” the error rate appears higher than the small percentage they admit to.

The comments received by Elections Offices range from information that a person is deceased, not a resident of the county, a green card holder or not a person at all to rather irate notes.

In the case of Bosco Lopes, his owners forwarded the letter to their county elections office with a very good explanation as to why Bosco won’t be able to vote in the upcoming election.

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The information provided by VPC is in English only and this raises concerns that green card holders might be confused by the letter’s heading “NOTICE: California law requires you to file a registration application in order to vote.” A spokesperson for VPC acknowledged “partial responsibility” if a green card holder was to register erroneously, but also pointed to the person’s responsibility to be aware that they can’t vote.

Sara’s letter to the VPC

Another database snafu sent a registration card to a 12-year old girl in Santa Cruz. While Sara agrees that every vote matters, she penned a response to the VPC and shared it with the elections office.

Added burden on election staff now to prevent election day problems

Nevada County Registrar of Voters Greg Diaz informed the media and the public of the issue via a news release on Monday: “If you have any questions about your voter registration status, please check directly with our office or visit our website at www.mynevadacounty.com/nc/elections. Our website allows voters to verify their voter registration information. Our online verification tool is quick and easy. This resource is available to you 24/7. Also, contact information for all California county elections officials and links to county online voter registration status tools are available on the Secretary of State’s website at: http://www.sos.ca.gov/elections/registration-status/.

To insure all registrations are processed according to voters’ preferences, election staff is contacting the prospective voters to check if the information on the card is accurate. Sjoberg said their office is doing everything they can to respect a voter’s intent and listed some possible issues:

If a vote-by-mail voter mistakenly sent the card back, they now would become a polling place voter since the generic registration cards sent out by VPC do not have a checkbox for vote-by-mail preference. If no party preference is indicated on the new card, a voter’s party affiliation could be changed to “no party preference.”

Sjoberg stated that the intent of VPC might be laudable and she agrees that all eligible voters should be encouraged to register. But she added, with the flawed methodology used the effort might end up causing unnecessary problems both for voters and election offices.

The deadline to register to vote in the November Presidential Election is October 24, 2016.

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