Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Trouble with VERIS

Virginia's new statewide voter-registration database is in trouble.

To be truthful, the system (called "VERIS") has been troubled from the start. Despite admonitions from registrars and local election officials who were field-testing VERIS that it was not ready to deploy, the State Board of Elections went live with VERIS in February, abandoning the perfectly useful, workable, and practical system called VVRS that had been used by Virginia for years.

Other states, such as Indiana, had no statewide database of registered voters, which is why the Help America Vote Act of 2002, or HAVA, mandated that every state develop one. VERIS is based on the system created for Indiana by UNISYS, which is one of the roots of the many problems that have occurred with it in Virginia.

Last night, NBC 29's Henry Graff reported a story about VERIS that led that Charlottesville TV station's newscasts at 5:00, 6:00, and 11:00 p.m., as well as the CW29 news at 10:00 p.m.

On the station's web site, Graff writes:

The problem: you show up to cast your ballot, but the polling place has no record of you. It's something local voting officials say could happen because of a flaw in the system.

"Just a couple of keystrokes could make the difference between your name being on the voter registration rolls and not being on them," explained Rick Sincere, member of the Charlottesville Electoral Board.

The system is called VERIS, The Virginia Elections and Registration Information System. The software program was created by UNISYS and in February, the entire Commonwealth began using it to register voters.

But local registrars like Sheri Iachetta say the system was not ready to be used. "It was telling me that some of my city streets were in the county and it wasn't letting me register people who live specifically in the city," shared Iachetta, Charlottesville voter registrar.

But that's not where the problems end. Officials say the system has dropped registered voters from the system all together.
Graff notes in his report that the Electoral Board for the City of Charlottesville sent a letter of concern to the State Board of Elections. Here is the text of that letter (which is just briefly quoted in the NBC29 story):
We are writing to express our concerns that the new statewide voter registration system, known as VERIS, suffers from so many bugs and glitches that it may threaten the integrity of the elections scheduled for 2007.

Fortunately, Charlottesville is one of the localities that will not be holding a June primary election, and we have moved our City Council and School Board elections to November. This means, however, that any Election Day problems we may experience with VERIS will not become apparent until November.

We know, for instance, that in the Town of Vienna, some 15 percent of registered voters failed to appear on the pollbooks prepared from VERIS data for the town council elections on May 2.

We hear frequent and similar reports from across the Commonwealth of voters whose names should be in the system, but are lost and irretrievable. The level of frustration among General Registrars and their staffs is palpable.

The problems in VERIS were identified during the testing phase, but the system went “live” and replaced VVRS (the older voter registration system) even when the State Board of Elections, Registrars, and Electoral Boards were aware that VERIS was not ready for full implementation.

We are worried that problems with VERIS will cause burdensome delays at the polls on Election Day or, far worse, actually disenfranchise some qualified voters.

We have shared our concerns with local elected officials and with the City Attorney in Charlottesville. We will be paying close attention to the experience of other localities during the June 12 primary election. (In fact, we have called a meeting of the Electoral Board in Charlottesville that day so that we can monitor reports about the performance of VERIS from around the Commonwealth.)

We would like assurance from the State Board of Elections that the serious, known problems with VERIS are being addressed. We want to be able to assure voters, candidates, election officials, and the public at large that the election this November will have the same level of fairness, transparency, integrity, and efficiency that previous Virginia elections have enjoyed for decades.
Copies of that letter were sent to Governor Tim Kaine, the state Secretary for Administration Viola Baskerville, Charlottesville Mayor David Brown, all the members of the Charlottesville City Council, and City Attorney Craig Brown.

These concerns have not been raised solely by Charlottesville election officials. The Voter Registrars Association of Virginia (VRAV) has informed the SBE of the problems its members have observed with VERIS, and individual registrars and electoral board members from across the state have done the same.

The SBE's response is simply to paper over the problem and to disregard what it knows to be the truth: That it was told before the February 2007 deployment of VERIS that the system was riddled with flaws and not ready to go live. Ignoring the numerous warnings, the SBE went live with VERIS anyway.

NBC29's state capitol correspondent Loretta Boniti sought a response from the State Board of Elections, interviewing Acting Secretary Valarie Jones. Her report, called "State Says No Need to Worry about VERIS System," also appeared on Friday's news broadcasts.

Since former Secretary Jean Jensen left the State Board of Elections earlier this year, the agency has been essentially rudderless. Governor Kaine has not nominated a successor to head the SBE, though there are rumors that he has narrowed the field of potential candidates to three (Acting Secretary Jones not among them). Let us hope that he acts soon so that the problems of VERIS can be addressed forthrightly and effectively and not whitewashed by the too-typical CYA attitude of government bureaucracies.

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