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Protecting Election Integrity: Why Poll Books Matter

An often overlooked yet critical component of U.S. election infrastructure is the poll book, a comprehensive and official record of who is registered to vote at each polling place. Recent incidents have revealed that poll books are vulnerable to human error, software malfunctions, and hacking. In June of this year, for example, over 118,000 voters were left off the voter rosters in Los Angeles County due to a “random printing error.” That same month, precincts in Texas and South Dakota suffered “glitches” with their electronic poll books, causing long lines. And during the 2016 election, eligible voters were turned away due to e-poll book issues in Durham, North Carolina. We also know that Russia “successfully infiltrated” an electronic poll book software company before the 2016 election.

Incidents like these disenfranchise prospective voters and undermine the public credibility of the election process.

Inclusive, fair, and secure elections are the foundation of a healthy democracy. Elections officials rely on poll books to put those values into practice. With that in mind, Protect Democracy has reached out to election officials across the nation to identify best practices for managing and securing this vital but underappreciated election infrastructure.

What exactly is a poll book?

Traditional poll books are paper lists of registered voters, organized by name and address and stored in a binder. Others are electronic, and enable poll workers to check voters in by searching for their names in a database on a tablet or laptop (which may contain only the data for those registered to vote at that location, or the entire state’s voter file). An electronic poll book will perform some of a poll worker’s duties automatically, like identifying a voter by scanning her driver’s license or issuing a voter a printed receipt verifying her status. Electronic poll books can also perform additional functions, like updating a voter’s registration data or enabling a voter who arrives at the wrong location to look up her polling place.

Jurisdictions in at least 27 states use electronic poll books, but 81.8% of jurisdictions continue to use paper. In 89% of the districts that use paper poll books, local jurisdictions (typically counties or cities) print their own books based on locally-gathered voter registration data. In most others, the state prints the poll books, relying on a statewide record.

No matter the type of poll book—whether traditional paper or electronic—it is essential that the poll books help ensure free and fair elections by serving three main roles:

  • Verifying voter eligibility: A poll book enables poll workers to determine whether a prospective voter is registered. Poll books might also record issues with the prospective voter’s registration, whether she has already voted, and whether she requested or received a mail-in ballot.
  • Recording who has voted: Generally, every person who shows up to vote in person must sign the poll book before casting a ballot, documenting that she voted. Sometimes, a poll worker will also assign each voter a number reflecting her location in the sequence of the day’s voters; that number would also be recorded in the poll book. Further, a poll book might record any issues with the election, like whether the voter cast a provisional ballot. However, a poll book does not record whom anyone voted for.
  • Enabling audits: A poll book enables others to ensure that the election went properly. For example, a poll book enables officials to ensure that the number of people who signed in to vote matches the number of ballots distributed at that polling place and the number of votes counted there. A poll book also enables officials to identify who voted.

What we’re doing today

Poll books should protect our democracy, not obstruct registered voters from participating. Although the federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC) recommends best practices for securing voter registration data, these recommendations do not specifically address poll books or the recent difficulties states are encountering with them.

Today, Protect Democracy is stepping up to fill that gap. We’ve asked the state officials who supervise our elections to share what they know about how to make poll books the best they can be. With their help and hands-on expertise, we’re confident that we can combat these threats and make our elections safer, faster, and more inclusive than ever before.

Read our letter below or download from here.



Poll Book Best Practices Query (Text)