Charles Stewart, Leading Expert on Election Administration, Cautions on Pence-Kobach Science Experiment

Smart and careful post from Charles:

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….

The existence of the Pence Commission is controversial already, and the day has now come that one of its most controversial activities has begun.  My intention here is to sidestep the political controversy and suggest two other things have been under-appreciated.  First, the Commission’s eyes may be bigger than its stomach.  Acquiring voter files from every state and matching them — among themselves and with other databases — will be a quagmire.  Second, public auditing of voter files based on database matching (and other procedures) is something that should be done more often and more publicly.  Because we have entrusted states to manage the voter files — for better or worse — a state-directed initiative would seem a better strategy than a controversial, high-visibility activity of a temporary federal commission.

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