Voter Files and Tax Rolls
The Critical Connection
by Nathan Maynes, Principal Data Engineer
The importance of voter roll accuracy received increased national attention in the wake of the 2020 presidential election. Misunderstandings around voter file complexities made clear just how vital clean files are for overall trust in our democratic process. This trust — born from a better understanding of how such records are created, maintained, and used — is fundamental for electoral participation as well as for peaceful transition of power. This holds true for local school boards all the way to the President of the United States.
While a national audience may be prompted by media stories to learn about voter files every four years or so, state and local government leaders are constantly engaged in the topic. With off-cycle elections, votes are cast in a handful of states every year. Races for Mayor, Board of Education, City Council, and other local positions are even now underway for the 2021 election cycle. Given the typical surge in voter registrations prior to presidential elections, these governments have a unique opportunity to clean their voter rolls now. An influx of new voter records is the perfect condition for making sure new and old records conform to the same standards.
Clean, well-maintained voter files are of course helpful in checking the integrity of our elections. The files are also extremely valuable for less obvious, but no less important, reasons. Understanding one such point of value — the connection between clean voter files and a jurisdiction’s property tax roll — can give local leaders significant wins in improved public service, improved public trust, and increased revenue for operating budgets.
The Voter File
To leverage this connection and maximize its benefit to communities, local leaders first have to understand some basics about voter files beyond their use for political campaigns. These files contain the name, address, and date of birth that can be used to validate identities of persons who have registered to vote. The files also show whether or not individuals have voted in local, statewide, or national elections. (Whether they have voted, not for whom they have voted; an important distinction.) All of this is publicly available through searches on state or commercial vendor web sites. Those who have sent out mailers or knocked on doors are certainly familiar with these files, mostly as printed lists on clipboards.
The Challenge of Clean Lists
The key nuance to these files is that they are exceedingly difficult to accurately maintain. According to a Pew Research Center study, “Although the federal law (the Help America Vote Act of 2002) requires each state to keep an individual list of its voters, the administration of elections in the U.S. historically has been decentralized, so harmonizing state records can be challenging. According to June 2017 data from our American Trends Panel, 16% of Americans said they had lived at their current address for less than one year. Those people become even harder to find if they’ve changed their name or move often.” In another study, Pew Research noted, “Commercial voter files may disproportionately miss segments of the public who are politically disengaged, younger, Hispanic, and more mobile.”
Difficulty in bridging these data gaps is exacerbated by a lack of standardization and common confusing situations.
Problems arise, for example, when David Jones, Sr., and David Jones Jr. reside at the same address. Misspellings happen frequently, and many systems don’t account for four or five-word ethnic names. Further, if a married couple registers to vote as Gary R. Johnson and Mrs. Gary R. Johnson, what happens if Mr. Johnson dies and the system drops “Mrs.” from his widow’s record? It can erroneously appear to those viewing the file as if a deceased person voted. Similar issues can be found when trying to match addresses. The United States Postal Service documents preferred and acceptable address formatting but many people are unaware of the rules. Did the voter spell out “Circle,” or abbreviate it as “Cir.”? Understanding nuance in the data takes time and experience.
In addition to these issues, voter files do not automatically update. People move. People pass away. People change their names when they get married. There is human error in data entry. There is no straightforward path to easily match disparate, incomplete data. Experienced data practitioners understand when multiple sources are aggregated, voter files become more accurate. Pew’s research concluded that a search that attempted to match a list of voters to one commercial voter file yielded a 69% match rate on average. Searching across voter files aggregated from five vendors, however, produced a significantly higher match rate of 91%.
The Commonwealth of Virginia offers an excellent example of aggregating data for consistently clean voter files. Its Department of Elections conducts robust, routine cross checking of statewide election databases with national ones such as the U.S. Postal Service’s database of address changes. The large number of external data sources used in these efforts also includes verified data from agencies such as the national Social Security Administration, the Virginia Department of Health, state police and local courts. These extensive sources and processing frequency contribute to an exemplar database.
Connecting Accurate Voter Data to Accurate Taxation
Marketers understand the actionable insight gained by marrying accurate voter files with other sources such as magazine subscriptions, surveys, online preferences, and more. This gives them the ability to target ads directly to the most likely buyers. Similarly, political parties use different combinations to mobilize their voters. Arguably, these uses are of little benefit to the individuals who find themselves on such lists. This is where local governments have a distinct opportunity to leverage accurate records to address inequity and help constituents.
When clean voter files are used as a data source to update local tax rolls, leaders can leverage the updates for tangible community benefits. Monitoring voter files for changes in registration and participation creates a more accurate view of who lives in a jurisdiction not just who owns property.
Tax Rolls and Local Impact
In the same way that clean voter files can be hard to maintain, tax rolls face burdensome list hygiene issues. This should matter to local leaders. While out-of-date tax rolls are often a hidden problem for local governments, they are always a costly problem.
A perfect example comes in homestead exemptions. These property tax breaks for individuals with certain circumstances can make a big difference in local operating budgets and in equitable service. Property owners who experience the death of a spouse or a military deployment, for example, are eligible to pay less in property taxes. This is an important public service, and one that only works when qualified recipients know about and take advantage of it. Vulnerable residents overpaying in taxes is not good public policy.
Conversely, property owners who do not meet exemption qualifications, or who fail to notify assessors when an exemption expires, are underpaying. This results in lost revenue for cities and counties, which, in our current context of reduced resources and uncertainty, can translate into a tough choice: decrease funding for programs and services or increase taxes on the community.
Voter data provides name and address information that can improve local tax rolls. At Trueroll we merge voter data with tax rolls across the country to help local jurisdictions confirm exemption qualifications and proactively reach out to taxpayers who possibly qualify.
Leveraging Voter Data in Administration of Your Tax Roll
Inefficiency in core government operations can be improved through modern technology. Local leaders effectively drove innovations to allow staff to work from home and residents to conduct government business online. Looking ahead to a post-pandemic context, many of these new digital operations will continue, making it a perfect time for other outdated processes to catch up and align.
The cumbersome, manual process of auditing tens of thousands of parcels in-house is how many jurisdictions still audit and update tax records. This requires staff to process tax roll updates, watch rental markets, and track obituaries. Other agencies or departments engage expensive vendors to compare their rolls with a few external data providers. Given the resources involved in both approaches, such efforts occur only every three to six years, creating a significant space of lost opportunity in revenue, service, and community equity.
Leveraging new technology helps governments overcome these challenges while also providing substantive wins for community members. Using a secure web app such as TrueRoll™, provides an easy way for leaders to proactively maintain accurate tax rolls without stagnant periods punctuated by significant staff burden and alarming new tax bills. The app integrates with a county’s CAMA system to work with information collected through other government functions. It allows local governments to be proactive, which means that when people die, rent their homes, move, or become unqualified for an exemption, those changes are captured right away with ongoing monitoring.
As we saw with voter files, aggregating data sources is key to accuracy. The web app for tax rolls automatically aggregates data from more than 80 sources, including voter records, credit bureaus, state DMVs, court and postal records, social media sites, and more. TrueRoll also maintains unique sources that surface unclaimed exemptions such as the Active Duty and Veteran Repository and the National Deed and Exemption Repository, among others. An important consideration is the ability to customize the app to include local data such as school registrations, local utilities, and local rental sites.
Solving for Equity
All of this results in tangible benefits for all stakeholders. It continues to be a challenge for government leaders to convey to constituents what relief services are available to them. TrueRoll uses machine learning to flag entries in existing tax rolls that might have an unclaimed or unqualified exemption. Quick follow up can determine whether staff should extend a benefit to a qualifying individual or capture owed revenue.
In both cases, the community is better served. Naturally, increased tax revenue preserves programs and services and can stave off tax increases — all very popular with the public. Notifying constituents that they qualify for an exemption also goes a long way towards increasing public trust and satisfaction with government. Providing fair, equitable service strengthens the foundations of a community, which results in better quality of life for everyone.
Implementing technology that enhances a jurisdiction’s data accuracy makes it possible for any-sized jurisdiction with any-sized budget to achieve better community outcomes.
Have questions about your voter files and tax rolls?
TrueRoll data experts are available to answer questions and help government leaders understand how clean data sources such as voter files impact local tax rolls and community equity.
Principal Data Engineer
Nathan has more than 10 years of experience building data pipelines for political organizations, the United States Postal Service, Thomson Reuters, and the United States Department of Defense. He has developed enterprise data integrations between traditional RDBMS, No-SQL, Graph, and web service backends. An advocate for open source solutions, he has presented data engineering solutions at various conferences and contributes to open source projects.