Between every registered voter and the voting booth is The List. And if you're not on it, you might not be able to cast a ballot.
One of the biggest changes wrought by the Help America Vote Act is the mandate that every state must have a voter registration database up and working by the Nov. 7 general election. But a dozen states missed the Jan. 1 deadline for finishing their databases, which produce lists of registered voters for every precinct. And four states have been sued by the Justice Department.
That leaves a confusing array of systems that may or may not work come Election Day, voting rights groups say. And it creates a growing anxiety that registered voters with every right to cast a ballot will be turned away because their names are not on the list for a variety of reasons, including something as innocuous as a typo.
"No issue is more important on Election Day than the quality of the list," said Doug Chapin of the nonpartisan reform group electionline.org. "Those databases are the final say on whether a person gets to vote."
The regulation was designed to assure that each state would have a central, independent repository for all registered voters — created by cross-checking voter registrations with existing state records to make sure dead people, incarcerated felons, and others not eligible to cast a ballot were removed from the rolls. It was also supposed to make it easier to vote by having a single list instead of scores of county-based rolls.
Using drivers' license data and Social Security numbers, state officials were supposed to match that data to voter registration cards. It didn't take long for unforeseen problems to pop up. Someone may use a middle initial on their voter registration card, but not on their driver's license. Married women may change their names, but not on every form of identification. Data entry errors can, and often do, occur.
"In theory, it looks like a really good idea," said Chapin. "But it's not as easy to match information on databases as they originally thought."
In September 2004, New York City decided to do a trial run. The board of elections sent 15,000 registration records to the Department of Motor Vehicles to match license numbers on the voter cards to those in the DMV. The results? Nearly 20 percent couldn't be matched because of typos made by city employees.
Earlier this year, the Department of Justice sued New York, Alabama, New Jersey and Maine for failing to implement statewide lists. The states have reached agreements with the Justice Department, most in the form of interim databases.
There were other problems as well. Some states got started late building their databases. Some contracted with vendors that couldn't meet the new federal deadline.
According to an electionline.org report released this week, California avoided being sued by the Justice Department by agreeing to update its existing system. The state had suffered serious matching problems — 25 percent of submitted registrations were rejected during the first three months of this year. Los Angeles County registrar Conny McCormack cited examples of rejected forms that included spaces between the letters in a name, such as De Leon, or a two-word last name that wasn't hyphenated.
In March, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University released a nationwide survey of voter registration databases. "Making the List" concluded the new list requirement could result "in millions of eligible voters being denied access to the polls."
Several states have made changes since the report was issued, including Pennsylvania and Washington, which was sued by the Brennan Center. In August, a Washington judge ruled in the center's favor, saying that finding discrepancies between state records should not result in rejecting voter registration forms.
Sometimes it's not the database that's the problem. Sometimes it's the technology for looking at the database.
In Maryland's September primary, some precincts couldn't access the state database because of computer software glitches, and there were no printouts to consult. Some machines mysteriously rebooted without warning. Both caused voting delays. State officials have said those problems will be rectified by Nov. 7.
But in some small counties, in states with smaller populations, databases are no trouble at all.
"We already know everybody here, so it's not a problem," said election official Bill Conway, who oversees the voting of about 7,000 people in Arkansas' Desha County. "I know everybody in the county, and they know me. We do our own database. We already know everybody who's going to vote."
That doesn't mean he relies on local lore to do his job. There are dead people's names in the database, but he hasn't received official state notification of their deaths, so he leaves them on the rolls. After all, he might have heard wrong.
"Imagine if you came in to vote and someone said, 'You can't vote, you're dead.' Now how would you feel?"