[Image courtesy of eastpdxnews]

More and more, local election offices are using a wide variety of data to update and maintain their voter rolls. As I’ve written elsewhere, such programs offer the promise of more accurate voter lists and greater convenience for voters as they move.

As this practice expands, however, it brings with it the possibility of a new kind of error related to mismatching or mistakes in using multiple sources to maintain voter rolls. The latest example comes from Multnomah County (Portland), OR, where a a recent mailing raised eyebrows. The Oregonian’s Jeff Mapes described it last week:

Several hundred Multnomah County residents got a surprise this past week when they received a postcard from the county elections office telling them that someone they didn’t know was registered to vote at their address.

One east Portland resident, who refused to be identified, received voter notification cards for no fewer than seven people he didn’t recognize — and who definitely didn’t live at his house.

“I don’t know who is perpetrating it, but it sure looks like fraud,” this resident said.

And yet – as is almost always the case – the problem wasn’t fraud but a simple mistake:

Multnomah County Elections Director Tim Scott said there was no fraud, only a spreadsheet foul-up the county has now fixed.

“It was a data processing error that we didn’t catch before the voter notification cards went out,” said Scott. All told, cards for 444 voters were sent to 377 incorrect households, he said …

The mistake occurred, he said, when a worker incorrectly loaded data regarding changed addresses into an electronic spreadsheet.

Every month, the county elections division obtains data from the secretary of state for address changes compiled by the post office. The elections division then uses this data to update voter addresses. Scott said this saves the county money by cutting the number of undeliverable ballots it sends out.

The takeaway for Multnomah, as I’m sure it will be for other jurisdictions nationwide with similar programs, will be to cut and paste with care and double-check the results. It seems obvious – let’s be honest, most mistakes do in hindsight – but if nothing else a small (if embarrassing) error like this is a helpful reminder that proofreading is just as important for spreadsheets and databases as it is for ballots.

That’s especially important in our current environment where any hint or suspicion of fraud raises not only eyebrows but temperatures. Anything an election office can do to forestall needless controversy – even something as painful as proofreading spreadsheets – is likely worth the effort.