A single, instantly updated list of registered voters in California became reality on Monday, as two final counties plugged in to an electronic database mandated by a federal law enacted in the wake of the contentious 2000 presidential campaign.
In other words, a database that was long overdue.
"It's been more than a decade in coming," Secretary of State Alex Padilla said.
The $98-million project allows elections officials in each of California's 58 counties to easily track voters who move from one place to another and to quickly update their records in the event of a death or a voter deemed ineligible after conviction of a felony.
The database will allow voters to check if they are registered at their current address, their party affiliation and whether a ballot sent by mail was actually counted.
"Usually, it is the poorer or more rural counties that lack these tools," said Kim Alexander, president of the nonpartisan California Voter Foundation. "That creates an uneven playing field for California voters and undermines voters' constitutional right to equal protection."
In an interview Monday, Padilla said a public awareness campaign will be needed to ensure Californians know there soon will be a new tool at their disposal.
"What it means for the voters is most important," he said.
The VoteCal database will undergo a battery of operational testing to sort out any remaining problems before being officially certified in June. But the final hookup to Stanislaus and Monterey counties Monday marked an important milestone.
Since 2003, the project has been waylaid by a scandal that led to the resignation of a former secretary of state, a threatened federal lawsuit, a private company that walked away from the technology project and the cumbersome process of re-awarding the government contract.
"All that is thankfully behind us," Padilla said.
Where voter records used to largely depend on the accuracy of the work done in individual counties, the database project has created a uniform process for inputting and sharing information on the state's 17.2 million registered voters.
"It's huge," said Neal Kelley, registrar of voters in Orange County and president of the state association representing local elections officials.
Orange County was one of the five initial counties to be connected to the VoteCal system last summer. Kelley said that from the very first moment, the database paid off by displaying 460 voters who had duplicate registration records in Orange and Sacramento counties.
"It was right in front of our eyes," he said. "You never would have seen that before."
Getting a reliable list of registered voters was one of the principal goals of the federal Help America Vote Act, passed in the wake of the chaotic events in the 2000 presidential race that led to the legal standoff and ultimate election of President George W. Bush. California was awarded $400 million for a variety of voting modernization projects, and state officials say a portion of that money is still on hand and available for maintenance and operation of the VoteCal system.
The database also is the key step toward implementing a 2015 state law that will automate voter registration for every citizen who applies for a driver's license and a 2012 law allowing election-day voter registration.
Monday's announcement also allows California to set aside its dubious distinction as the very last state in the nation to launch a comprehensive voter registration system, the end to a system that Kelley said was based on voter data collection methods dating back to the 1920s.
"Getting in to the 21st century is a good feeling," he said.