The mechanics of elections that attract the most attention are casting and counting, snafus with voting machines and ballots and allegations of hacking and fraud. But Jeff Jonas, a prominent data scientist, is focused on something else: the integrity, updating and expansion of voter rolls.
“As I dove into the subject, it grew on me, the complexity and relevance of the problem,” he said.
As a result, Jonas has played a geeky, behind-the-scenes role in encouraging turnout for Tuesday’s midterm elections.
For the past four years, Jonas has used his software for a multistate project known as Electronic Registration Information Center that identifies eligible voters and cleans up voter rolls. Since its founding in 2012, the nonprofit center has identified 26 million people who are eligible but unregistered to vote, as well as 10 million registered voters who have moved, appear on more than one list or have died.
“I have no doubt that more people are voting as a result of ERIC,” said John Lindback, a former senior election administrator in Oregon and Alaska who was the center’s first executive director.
Voter rolls, like nearly every aspect of elections, are a politically charged issue. ERIC, brought together by the Pew Charitable Trusts, is meant to play it down the middle. It was started largely with professional election administrators, from both red and blue states.
But the election officials recognized that their headaches often boiled down to a data-handling challenge. Then Jonas added his technology, which has been developed and refined for decades. It is artificial intelligence software fine-tuned for spotting and resolving identities, whether people or things.
“Every time you get two pieces of junk mail from the same place, that’s an entity resolution problem,” Jonas said. “They’re missed, but entity resolution problems are everywhere.”
Shortly after the election administrators tapped him, Jonas sketched out how his technology might be applied to their challenges. And they needed to take a very different path than another data-matching initiative, the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck System, which was already underway.
Crosscheck was begun in 2005, led by Ron Thornburgh, then the Republican secretary of state in Kansas, and later championed by Kris Kobach, the Republican secretary of state who is running for governor of Kansas.
Crosscheck was portrayed as a program to root out voter fraud. But election administrators and experts agree that voter fraud is a rarity. Voter rights advocates long argued that Crosscheck was a partisan effort to purge voter rolls of likely Democratic voters, and a recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice found a rising rate of people being removed from voter rolls.
Last year, researchers at Stanford, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania and Microsoft Research concluded that Crosscheck produced a flood of false positives, raising the risk of disenfranchising legal voters. And an investigation by ProPublica found Crosscheck was riddled with security flaws. Today, the Crosscheck system is little used, essentially dormant.
ERIC, by contrast, was meant to increase voter access and clean up voter rolls. Member states have to agree to specific steps to do both.
“If we didn’t do that, ERIC would become another politicized tool,” said David Becker, former head of the elections program at Pew and the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation and Research.
The organization’s reach has grown gradually and its members now include the District of Columbia and 24 states, traditionally Democratic ones like Connecticut and Illinois and Republican ones like Louisiana and Missouri.
From each member, the group collects a minimum of voter registration and motor vehicle license data. The software Jonas and his team developed digests and links that data, and combines it with other information like postal change-of-address lists. Some states contribute other data.
Any private personal information including date of birth, driver’s license and Social Security numbers, receive a one-way encryption “hash” for privacy — scrambled into a string of numbers and characters, which cannot be read by humans.
The software finds people wherever they are. “It connects the dots for us,” said Shane Hamlin, executive director of the center. “It’s actionable data.”
Among the actions required by member states is to mail out notifications to people identified as eligible but unregistered. Follow-up research in some states concluded that 10 to 20 percent of those contacted had later registered to vote, a high response rate for direct mailings, Hamlin said. That rate suggests 2.6 million to 5.2 million of the 26 million people notified became voters, though they could have signed up for other reasons.
The software is not flawless. A couple of state administrators said determining a person’s current address can be difficult, according to the Brennan Center study, and like any technology tool, much depends on how it is used, despite the safeguards.
But the states using the ERIC software generally say false positives are few, and returned unopened mail — evidence of a wrong address — are much reduced. And the outreach seems to be working. Colorado had the highest percentage of eligible, registered voters in the country in 2016, at 90 percent, up from 82 percent in 2012.
“For my money, ERIC is a big part of that,” said Judd Choate, Colorado’s director of elections. “ERIC has been a game-changer in elections for those of us in it.”
One thing Jonas finds satisfying is that ERIC has a two-person staff with one tending the constantly growing database of more than 275 million records.
“It’s not beholden to an army of experts,” he said.
Jonas is advancing the technology in a startup, Senzing, which he founded and spun out of IBM in 2016. He joined IBM after it bought his previous startup, Systems Research and Development, in 2005.
Senzing has no headquarters. Its 20 full-time employees work from wherever they please, following their founder’s lead. Jonas, 54, has long been a road warrior, but recently he decided to go further — a lifestyle experiment he calls “full nomad” and “extreme minimalism.”
He is selling his home in Venice, California, and jettisoning nearly all his possessions. He has digitized family photos, papers, awards, anything that stirs memories of his experience, and stored them on Dropbox. His clothes are laundered, stored and sent ahead to him to his travel destinations by DUFL, a travel valet service. On Sunday, Jonas completed his 61st Ironman Triathlon — swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running a full 26.2-mile marathon — in Florida.
“I’m unencumbered, so I can focus on stuff that matters,” Jonas said.