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During their keynote panel here in Austin, Texas, David Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, and Jeff Jonas, founder of Senzing, had some good news for a crowd of privacy professionals who'd heard what some would say was a deluge of bad news via the keynotes presented at P.S.R. 2018 the night before. (The shorthand version of those keynotes is this: Algorithmic discrimination is pervasive and tech behemoths have us over a line, and for now we're simply victims.)

The good news? We're making serious progress on data integrity in a way that's benefitting democracy. Period.

Here's what they meant: They're doing work to verify voter identity and cut down on the amount of voter disenfranchisement here in the U.S. Because here's the problem: Any time you get that many people involved in doing the same task, on the same day, all across the country, it's inevitable that you'll have problems. 

Becker recalls a conversation he had with a friend one day, a few years back, in which his friend said: “Let’s make elections like Jiffy Lube." What he meant was that oil changes used to be a cumbersome process, until Jiffy Lube came out with a model in which drivers were in and out within 15 minutes. What if the same kind of model could be applied to voter registration? 

But the main problem in making sure every vote counts, and voters don't show up at the wrong polling place or not at all, is the voter registration process, Becker said. And that's simply because of the reality of mobility.

Hey, people move.

In fact, "one-third of people think voter records magically and automatically update," Becker said. And 50 percent don’t know they can simply update their voter address at their local Department of Motor Vehicles.

So Becker set to work and created the Electronic Registration Information Center, and he did some poking around. And what ERIC found was that there were 300,000 votes lost in 2016 alone due to voter registration problems. In fact, one-third of all eligible voters were not actually registered to vote — anywhere. 

Becker realized this might not be just a policy problem; it might actually be a data problem.

The real issue is about "entity resolution," or record matching. Where that matters for voting is recognizing that a voter has left one jurisdiction and popped up in another. Being able to identify when that happens so those voters can be notified of vote dates, polling locations, and the issues on the ballots ensures greater participation and a healthier democracy. 

With ERIC, records are matched within states and from state-to-state via voter and DMV records, so that a person who once lived in one place and now lives in another can be confidently matched. That's where the AI engine Jonas developed, called G2, comes in. It takes those records from the DMV and voter registration, hashes the sensitive data, and then performs the difficult computations that allows for one-to-one matching with high confidence. 

Thus far, states including Washington, Nevada, Utah, Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware have signed on to participate in ERIC, among the 24 total U.S. states. With Florida and Massachusetts passing bills to join next year, more than 50 percent of American voters will be covered.

For Becker, it's an indication of the way the U.S. can move forward in a non-political, non-partisan way. 

As an example of the impact ERIC has had since it's become operational: It found 2.2 million registered voters who'd moved out of state the state in which they were registered. 

In addition, in the last six years, it's registered nearly six million new voters.

"This wasn’t conducted by political parties or idealogues, it was done by the government in a non-partisan basis all across the country," Becker said. And "none of this would have been possible" but for the technology that Jonas came up with. 

Said Becker: “While this might all seem very esoteric to people who don’t work like I do in elections all the time, when you go to vote in a state using ERIC, you’re going to see benefits: Shorter lines, more likelihood you get stuff in your mailbox on time, more chance you can vote early if you want to."

For Becker and and Jonas, the data integrity most of us privacy professionals worry about on daily basis isn't just about protecting company reputation or serving customers. It's about preserving our democracy itself. 


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