The recent controversy surrounding the New York City Board of Elections accidentally dropping 126,000 Brooklyn Democrats from voting polls reminds us that missteps in managing data can have far-reaching consequences. It is a reminder that many organizations need a Master Data Management (MDM) system to prevent (or recover from) a serious faux pas.
For those who don’t follow American politics closely, New York's flagship public radio station, WNYC, broke the story of a voting scandal this week. WNYC reported that the city’s Board of Elections purged a huge number of Democratic voters in Brooklyn, leading to many voter complaints spanning from registration problems to insufficient ballots, and even being turned away at the polling site. To make things worse, New York has a closed primary which means only voters who had registered with either the Democrat or Republican parties ahead of time were allowed to vote for that particular party.
It is still unclear how or why the city’s Board of Elections omitted such a large number of voters from the rolls - at times entire parts of the alphabet, according to WNYC. New York mayor Bill de Blasio has ordered an investigation and audit. If the Board of Elections had an MDM system, they would be able to use data lineage, the historical tracking of data as it evolves over time, like a time machine. Lineage would allow the Board of Elections to travel back into the past to analyze how the data looked. There is an automatic audit trail with built-in accountability automated by an MDM solution that doesn’t require a human to perform these tasks.
The Board of Elections claims that the voters might have been purged during list maintenance operations which happen regularly to remove people who have moved out of Brooklyn and people who moved from active to inactive voter status. Removing inactive voters outright from the voter list is one method to tackle this. But once the data is gone, it is gone for good. On the other hand, MDM “soft deletes” so that the data is flagged as no longer active and is filtered out. It is not actually gone forever. The benefits of this capability can be critical. The Board of Elections now has to scramble to get its voter rolls updated and in order for the November general elections which is guaranteed to be more chaotic than this week’s primary elections.
Finally, one of the biggest benefits to adopting MDM to take care of voter data is the benefit of using address verification and geocoding services that can cleanse and standardize addresses as well as track change of addresses. If the Board of Elections had MDM, it could preemptively track whether New York City residents have moved. The data comes from the USPS’s mail forwarding service so it is an opt-in service where the government already tracks people moving from one location to another. An MDM solution would have built-in, out-of-the-box capability to submit an existing address and get back the updated address. Address verification is a popular system that the private sector often uses to ensure it sends mail to the correct recipient at the current address. MDM is the underlying technology that allows these mailing to happen efficiently so customers are not receiving duplicate mailings, and companies save money on marketing costs when they have reliable and accurate information to rely on.
The Board of Elections has already made significant administrative errors so far this year. For example, Gothamist reported that the Board sent out reminder notices to new voters with the wrong date for the primary. According to reporting by The New York Times, the Board send absentee ballots with errors, a costly mistake which required additional mailings to correct the errors. In light of this year’s heated political landscape, the additional scrutiny on voting rights, and accusations of intentional disenfranchisement, New York City’s Board of Elections can hardly afford another scandal.
The New York City Board of Elections should adopt master data management in time for the November elections to avoid another huge snafu.