Thursday, March 23, 2006

Voting for a database that works

By Cindy Rodríguez, Denver Post Staff Columnist;
Article Launched: 3/23/2006 01:00 AM on DenverPost.com

During the contentious 2004 presidential election, Rebecca Yaffe and Tony Thompson were among the legions of people nationwide who knocked on doors, offered voter- registration forms and urged people to vote.

Armed with a thick printout of registered voters they'd received from the Broomfield County Election Division, they set off, convinced they could motivate Democrats to vote out President Bush.

But a curious thing kept happening.

"We'd knock on a door and say, 'Mr. Johnson?' and the person who answered the door would say, 'He hasn't lived here in years,' " Yaffe recounted.

The files were almost useless for canvassing because they contained outdated information. Sometimes, the voter lists included two or three families living in the same house.

"It was a mess," Thompson said of the files, which both Democrats and Republicans rely on to drum up support from their bases and convince unaffiliated voters.

So Thompson and Yaffe set out to fix the county's database on their own. Most people wouldn't fathom undertaking such a project, but Thompson, a software architect for Level 3, builds complex software programs for a living. This one was a snap.

The software program, which Thompson named The Broom - because it swept away duplicate names and erroneous phone numbers in Broomfield - took five days to build. Creating the database took two weeks, with about 400 volunteers helping input detailed, up-to- date information.

Once it was done, word spread. Soon, Democrats across the state asked the pair to help clean their county's voter files. Organizers for Mark Udall, Ken Sala- zar and John Kerry tapped them as well.

Their project turned into a statewide effort. Two years later, they refined the software so it's easy to use, with encrypted information on a server they say can't be hacked.

All of the state's registered voters, nearly 3 million of them, are in the database.

Officials consider the software such a valuable resource that Thompson, Yaffe, a Web designer, and their friend Eddie García, a commercial banker, decided to market it.

Their company is called Sweep Enterprises LLC. They say theirs is the only comprehensive and accurate voter database in the state.

That's not stretching the truth. The current state data, collected by Colorado's 64 counties, is a hodgepodge of information, some of it old, some of it repetitive, some of it incomplete. Dana Williams, a spokeswoman for the secretary of state, said the counties send new data every month, which is dumped into a state database that was created by the secretary of state's Division of Information Technologies. It's not in compliance with the federal Help America Vote Act.


The company the state contracted with to do the work, Accenture LLC - a company with a history of failure - missed every deadline. The state terminated the contract and is back to Square One, about four months behind the Jan. 1 federal deadline.

The database delay means a push-back on implementing an electronic balloting system throughout the state, which is good news to those who are leery of tampering.

"We hope to get a system implemented in 2007, but we don't know exactly when," Williams says. "It depends on the company we contract with."

Williams said a request for proposals for a database system will be announced at the end of April.

It would make sense for the state to steer clear of contracting with Electronic Data Systems, the $200 million state social services system created two years that has been a nightmare from Day 1, causing delays in Medicaid and food stamp payments.

But does Sweep Enterprises, a fledgling operation with three employees that has a ready-to-deliver Colorado voter database, stand a chance with the state?

The company will have to wait and see.

Cindy Rodríguez's column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in Scene. Contact her at 303-820-1211 or crodriguez@denverpost.com.

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