Voting Rights Watch: Are Social Security matches really a threat to voters?

The debate over the use of Social Security matches by states to verify new voters is still roiling.

As Facing South reported, last week the Social Security Administration issued a high-profile letter to six states -- including Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina -- questioning the "extraordinarily high" number of requests to match newly-registered voters with Social Security information. The New York Times followed with a widely-circulated story describing the match process as "illegal."

But state elections officials fired back, saying the high number of checks are entirely understandable given the explosion of new registrations that states are legally required to quickly verify. On Friday, the National Association of Secretaries of State weighed in with a statement [MS Word] arguing that the Social Security matches were legally required by the Help America Vote Act:

This is not a last-resort option, as some reports have claimed. For eligible voters who do not have a valid state driver's license or who choose to provide only the last four digits of their Social Security number, election officials are required to try and match their data against Social Security records.

The NASS also pointed out that no voters are purged from the rolls from a bad match -- it's a check run before new names are added to the rolls when information is missing or wrongly filled out by the voter. When that happens, "election officials try to reach out to the applicant and correct the problem."

Gary Bartlett of the North Carolina State Board of Elections pointed out that, at least in NC, a bad match also doesn't stop voters from casting a ballot:

Those whose numbers were flagged can still vote if they provide identification either before the election, at the polls, or within 10 days after the election ... [Social Security match problems are] "not going to disenfranchise anyone."

Due to the controversy, however, Bartlett did announce that NC would be stopping the checks except in the case of those who couldn't provide a valid driver's license .

Officials got some backup from Bob Hall of the voting rights group Democracy North Carolina. In a statement last week, he noted that most registration problems come from improperly filled-out registration forms:

Forms are submitted that are incomplete or partly illegible; they are submitted without the person's signature or without any identification number. In our experience, Social Security numbers are often provided, rather than the driver's license number, so it is not surprising that out of 700,000 new registrations in the past year in North Carolina, the Social Security administration's computers would receive a large volume to match.

In at least a couple instances, the Social Security Administration does seem to have a point. For example, according to their data Georgia has made nearly 2 million match requests since October 1, 2007. Yet the state has only registered 406,000 new voters this year -- suggesting that some of those matches weren't only for new voters, as federal law instructs. Georgia's Deputy Secretary of State responded that "I would dispute those figures."

The upshot? The Georgia numbers, if correct, would suggest there can be problems with the over-zealous or improper use of Social Security voter checks. The New York Times also describes other ways the matches may be improperly applied.

But it's also clear that the Social Security checks -- especially after the public outcry -- are unlikely to bar any sizable number of legitimate new voters from participating. As state election officials have noted, it also points to the need for greater clarification and refinement of our country's ever-evolving election system, especially on the hot issues of registering and verifying new voters.