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October Surprise: Goverment Computers To Go Offline During Voter Registration Peak

The Social Security Administration, whose databases verify new voter registrations, will be shut down in mid-October for three days for maintenance.
 
 
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A recent alert by the Social Security Administration announces that the agency plans to shut down its databases for maintenance from October 11 through October 13. While this might not sound like an election issue, it turns out that this could significantly impede registration of first-time voters as well as the re-registration of eligible citizens.

Here's why. A 2002 federal law, the Help America Vote Act, requires all states to "coordinate" their voter registration databases with the Social Security database (and state motor vehicle databases) for the purpose of processing new voter registration forms. For the millions of voters who do not have current driver's licenses and register using the last four digits of their Social Security numbers, state election officials are required to try to match their voter registration information against Social Security records. But if the Social Security database is down—as it will be for four days—they won't be able to do that. Across the country, the processing of these voter registration forms will grind to a halt for four days.

Normally, a delay of three days would not have a major impact. But this delay is scheduled to take place three weeks before the November 4 election—a time when election officials in every state will be scampering to try to process the millions of new voter registrations they receive. With only 25 days to process millions of new voter registrations, while doing dozens of other things to prepare for what is shaping up to be the highest turnout election in decades, a loss of three days can spell disaster.

Even without this delay, there are already significant concerns that our overworked and under-resourced election officials will not be able to process all the new voter registrations this year in time for the election. Voter registration numbers are skyrocketing. Election officials are already feeling the strain, and it will only get worse. In every election, there is a huge spike in voter registrations in the period right before the voter registration deadline. Florida, for example, typically receives between 13 and 20% of its new voter registrations in the week before the deadline. In short, this shutdown is planned for the worst possible time, a time when every minute counts.

If the shutdown goes as planned, it will seriously impair the ability of states to process new voter registrations before the November 4 election. Who would this impact? New voters, as well as people who re-register because they have moved, who do not have state-issued driver's licenses or non-driver's IDs. Those citizens are disproportionately older, African-American, and low-income, studies show.

Fortunately, the solution to this potential disaster is easy: postpone the shutdown until after the election. And next time, look at the calendar before deciding when to turn off a database relied on by millions.

(Editor's note: On Tuesday, September 23rd, Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and chairwoman of the Senate committee overseeing elections, wrote to the Social Security Administration, asking the agency to defer its database maintenance until after the November election.)

Wendy Weiser directs the Brennan Center’s work on voting rights and elections. During the run-up to the 2004 and 2006 elections, she masterminded litigation and advocacy efforts that kept hundreds of thousands of voters from being disenfranchised.