A couple of weeks ago, Carol Aichele, Pennsylvania’s secretary of state, announced that her state would be taking the “historic step” of joining a new, national program to compare voter registration records against records from other states for duplicate entries.

Amidst the highly publicized battle over an attempt by Pennsylvania to impose photo ID requirements for voters — supported by Gov. Corbett and Secretary Aichele, both Republicans — the announcement didn’t make big headlines.  But it probably should have.

Starting in January, 2014, Pennsylvania will begin submitting its database of roughly 8.5 million registered voters to what may be the least careful tool for identifying, and sometimes purging, duplicate voter registrations ever created.

It’s one that’s also becoming popular in the political playbook of equating errors in voter data with evidence of voter fraud.

To be sure, voter rolls across America contain erroneous and out-of-date information: names are misspelled, addresses wrong, people who moved away from one address are still listed as being registered, mostly because few people moving think to notify the Election Board of their departure. Election boards are constantly updating their rolls, using computers to check them against death registries and change-of-address forms filed with Motor License Bureaus.

The Interstate Voter Crosscheck Program is, in theory, an attempt to make updating those voter rolls easier. Member states upload their voter rolls to the Kansas Department of State, which then compares them with others submitted by other participating states. The result is a report of possible duplicate entries – people who would seem to be registered to vote in two states at once.

[Below: a Crosscheck presentation to an association of Secretaries of State]

But the program comes not without its own significant political baggage.

The program was developed by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a Republican who has become a figure of increasing national prominence in what conservatives (Republicans, mostly) bill as a national effort to project the integrity of elections  — and what civil libertarians, voting rights advocates, and Democrats (generally) call a systematic strategy to suppress voting.

Kobach has made his political reputation as an aggressive general for his side in this war.

He also has championed voter ID laws, and drew support from one side and lawsuits from the other when he imposed a citizenship check on voter registration. The ACLU, says Daniel Ho, director of its Voting Rights Project, is preparing to sue Kobach for violating the National Voters Rights Act.

But amidst those battles, the Interstate Crosscheck program, Kobach’s brainchild, has expanded rapidly, and with little opposition — from four participating states in 2005 to 25 today. Nevada, the most recent, announced its participation just last week.  All but a few of the participating states have Republican governors and/or legislatures.

What sets the Interstate Crosscheck program apart from other systems state and local election boards use is the size of its database —in 2012, the program compared more than 84 million voter registration records — and the massive number it tends to report as “possible double registrations,”— what would appear to be the same person, in different states.

The program’s 2013 scan identified over five million such cases – about one in seventeen of every record it scanned.

It’s a staggering number – but also staggeringly deceptive one.

The program, for instance, appears to count every instance in which someone has moved out of a state, registered to vote in their new state, but has not yet been removed from the old voter rolls, a process that can take several election cycles to happen automatically.

And while the program asks member states to submit 13 items of data for each voter, including the last four digits of his/her social security number and middle name, Kansas state department officials acknowledged in an email that all that’s required for the crosscheck program to generate a “possible duplicate entry,” is for the last name, first name, and date of birth to match.

From a slideshow promoting the program shown to secretaries of state

From a slideshow promoting the program shown to secretaries of state

When told that the crosscheck reports use only last and first names and a birthday, Philadelphia elections commissioner Stephanie Singer audibly gasped.

“There are going to be a lot of David Lees on that list,” she said.

A “hit,” meanwhile, means even less when it comes to detecting the kind of voter fraud the program is supposed to target: double voting, in which a voter registered in two states votes simultaneously in both.

Evidence of such fraud is scant. Only a handful of cases have been documented anywhere, ever. The the logistics alone of a voter’s voting twice, in two different states, can stretch the imagination.

But that hasn’t stopped politicians participating in the Crosscheck program from using it to suggest that fraud abounds. In their simplistic equation, errors equal voter fraud.

Following his state’s participation in the Crosscheck program, Ohio Secretary of State John Husted announced: “This report demonstrates that voter fraud does exist,” citing numbers in the hundreds to back up his claim. In fact, his office referred only 20 cases to law enforcement and none have resulted in charges so far.

Earlier this year, Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler announced that the Crosscheck had helped identify 17 cases of alleged fraud, which were submitted to the Boulder County District Attorney’s office for investigation. In July, the Boulder D.A. announced that none had involved fraud and called Gessler’s actions “politically motivated.”

Kobach himself, the Crosscheck program’s creator, recently told the Washington Times that “double voting is a real common form of voter fraud.”

Kobach’s office defended this assertion only by noting, via a spokesperson, that “These observations are based on experience, so they’re substantiated in that sense,” and could not say whether the Interstate Crosscheck program had resulted in a single charge of voter fraud, in Kansas or anywhere else.

What the program has resulted in, meanwhile, is voter purges.

The Interstate Crosscheck program itself doesn’t itself tell states what to do with the reports the program generates —  but several states have used the reports to justify mass purges of voters from the rolls.

Shortly after Virginia’s legislature authorized its State Board of Elections to participate in the crosscheck program, the Board delivered to local state election officials more than 57,000 names it had identified, effectively encouraging local officials to purge them from the rolls just weeks before this November’s election.

That led the state’s Democratic party to sue the State Board of Elections in federal court, accusing the state of violating the National Voters rights Act, which forbids states from purging within 90 days of an election.

They also say the data is unreliable, citing the affidavit of Larry Haake, registrar of elections for Chesterfield County who refused to remove voters using the report until after the November election.

“I have a greater duty than to just blindly obey them,” he said over the phone. “I don’t have to disregard the fact that this is an unreliable list.”

Election officials note that they regularly clean voter rolls of outdated entries, according to procedures spelled out under state law. All states have such procedures.

Pennsylvania counties, says Philadelphia voter registration administrator Greg Irving, uses address changes reported to the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles and other information to regularly remove voters from the rolls — but only after attempting to write the voter at his or her new address and old address to make sure there isn’t a mistake.

Exactly what Pennsylvania officials have in mind for the results of the 2014 Crosscheck isn’t clear yet — but Philadelphia Commissioner Singer is wary.

In an email, Singer, a Democrat, compared the program to the photo ID movement: “Find a way to disenfranchise American citizens, cloak it in rhetoric about election integrity and, by the way, create an unfunded mandate for the County Boards of Election.”

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