I’ve had a chance now to read the letter that vice-chair Kris Kobach has sent to the states, requesting that they send the Pence Commission copies of their publicly available voter files. My initial reactions fall into two buckets, the small and the expansive. I want to make clear that there is no intrinsic problem with matching voting lists against other lists and reporting the results. In fact, valuable insights can emerge from linking voter records. I don’t know a better way to advance knowledge and practice than to conduct research, report the results, and then hash out what they mean. But here’s the caveat. As a social scientist who has conducted voter roll matching both for scientific research and for litigation, I know how hard it is to do this right. For example, the well-known “birthday problem” makes it likely that two different people will be mistakenly matched to one another. Few people have the expertise to handle these complexities correctly. Just as litigation is rarely the best vehicle to advance the science of a field, I worry about developing matching routines on the fly in the context of a commission that is controversial.
Now on to the letter. I am well aware that many people view with skepticism the appointment of the Pence Commission. I have nothing to add to the partisan fight over the commission’s appointment and work. Instead, my reaction is from the perspective of someone who believes that careful empirical research is the best path to improving elections in America.
Two small-bore details jumped out at me when I read the letter.
First, the letters were apparently addressed to all the Secretaries of State, even though the chief election officer (CEO) is not always the Secretary. (Here’s the link to the list of CEOs in each state.) Certainly support staff in SOS offices know how to forward e-mail, but small misfires such as this suggest a lack of care in the process of making the request for the voter files.
Second, the letters ask for the “publicly-available voter roll data,” including “dates of birth, political party …, last four digits of social security number if available…” The terms “publicly-available” and “social security number” don’t belong together in the same sentence. Furthermore, if the goal is to use these lists to do matching with other lists, there is no reason to specify political party.