The What, Why and How of Voter List Maintenance
It’s a typical day in the U.S.: a moving truck hauls belongings across town, someone turns 18, a loved one passes away. For election administrators, these life events are noteworthy as they constitute changes to a voter’s registration. Tracking each change is a herculean task, but it’s essential.
Voter registration lists are the foundation for running great elections, identifying everything from who is registered to vote to which ballot style, with which races, each voter receives. All states have processes to keep their lists up to date, known as list maintenance.
Everyone benefits from accurate voter rolls, and each year states are getting better and better at refining their own processes to keep them tidy.
How Does List Maintenance Work?
List maintenance practices are largely governed by state law, but two pieces of federal legislation provide a regulatory floor: the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) and the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA).
The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 limits when list maintenance verification activities can happen and specifies the reasons a state may remove a voter from the roles—due to felony conviction, mental incapacity, at the voter’s request or because a voter no longer lives in the jurisdiction. The NVRA explicitly prohibits states from removing a voter from registration rolls simply for failure to vote.
Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming are exempt from the NVRA and therefore are not required to follow the law’s notification process for removal.
The Help America Vote Act of 2002 requires states to maintain voter registration lists at the state level and to coordinate with state agencies to keep voter records current. For more on the details of what’s permitted and prohibited under federal law, see NCSL’s updated Voter Registration List Maintenance webpage.
But—those laws are just the baseline. States can and do go above, and improving list maintenance processes is an evergreen topic for lawmakers. This month’s Canvass outlines several areas that states have looked at in recent years, with examples of recent enactments.
HAVA requires states to cross-reference their voter rolls with data from state health death records. This allows states to cancel voter registration records for deceased voters. (A side note: when a voter dies after casting an absentee ballot and before Election Day, states differ on whether the ballot should be counted or not.)
Some states go beyond HAVA’s requirement to include additional data sources. Fourteen states accept obituaries for verification of a voter’s death. Five states—Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Minnesota, Oklahoma—reference vital records bureaus from other states. And 10 states use Social Security Administration data for death verification.
In 2021, six states enacted legislation for flagging deceased voters. Arizona required the secretary of state to compare death records from its state health department, and Louisiana added criteria for removing a deceased voter. New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah enacted similar bills.
In most states, being convicted of certain crimes disqualifies a voter.
To find those people, most states require courts or corrections departments to file a monthly report with the state’s chief election official listing all disenfranchising convictions. That official may cancel the relevant voter registrations or forward the information to county and local officials, who then cancel the relevant registrations.
Legislative action in 2021 on voters with felonies was varied. In terms of list maintenance, Indiana now requires information about Indiana voters who are incarcerated in other states to be sent to the voter’s home county to remove that person from the voter rolls. Beyond list maintenance, Illinois, Maryland and New Hampshire expanded voting options and voter registration opportunities for incarcerated voters, Louisiana allowed citizens with felony convictions on parole who do not receive prison time to vote, and Connecticut, New York and Washington all restored voting rights to citizens on parole.
A small but increasing number of states are using jury dismissal notices to verify citizenship for voting. Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana and Texas have statutes requiring the reporting of jury dismissal due to non-citizen status to election officials for voter registration list maintenance purposes. If a person can’t be a juror because of their citizenship status, they can’t be a voter, either.
Moves into and out of a jurisdiction account for many voter record changes, so election officials use several sources to keep address information current. The most common is the U.S. Postal Service’s National Change of Address (USPS NCOA) program. Thirty states require the use of NCOA, three states receive NCOA through ERIC membership (see below) but don't require it, and 12 states permit but do not require the use of NCOA data.
Other commonly used data sources to detect invalid addresses are changes to driver’s license or state ID addresses, and election mail and jury notices that are returned as undeliverable.
In 2021, Kentucky created a timeline for removing voters who move to another jurisdiction. Texas tightened proof of residency requirements. Nebraska, Hawaii, Louisiana also enacted legislation related to identifying voter address changes.
The Electronic Registration Information Center
The Election Registration Information Center (ERIC), an interstate compact, assists states to improve voter roll accuracy by serving as a one-stop shop for list maintenance and data comparison activities. Member states share their voter registration data with ERIC through an encrypted data transfer, and ERIC provides them with monthly reports on voters who have moved or died as well as on duplicate registrations. With these reports, states undertake their own verification processes. With 30 member states and D.C., ERIC membership includes states large and small, Republican and Democratic.
Earlier this year, Louisiana announced it would suspend its membership in ERIC, citing concerns of partisan funding sources and data privacy. Two states away, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill defended his state’s ERIC membership after his primary opponent expressed similar concerns. Merrill was instrumental in passing legislation in 2015 allowing Alabama to join the compact. In 2021, the state enacted bipartisan legislation codifying ERIC membership in statute.
Nebraska, New Jersey and Oklahoma also passed legislation in 2021 enabling or requiring their state to join ERIC.
Other Legislative Action
In 2021, 14 states enacted list maintenance legislation. In addition to the enactments mentioned above, states took action on a variety of other list maintenance topics, too:
- Montana increased the frequency of list maintenance activities.
- North Dakota required the secretary of state to provide training to election workers with access to voter data.
- Oregon created additional criteria for changing voter status and prescribed a notification process for inactive voters.
- New Hampshire expanded intrastate and interstate data-sharing.
In 2022 so far, 81 bills have been introduced in 22 states on list maintenance. Current trends suggest a continued interest in deceased voters, data sharing, inactive voters and using jury ineligibility to remove non-citizens. Learn more about bills from this session and prior years by visiting our State Elections Legislation Database.
Questions to Consider
Interest piqued? Consider the following questions when pursuing or evaluating list maintenance legislation:
- What agencies do state and local election officials coordinate with to ensure the accuracy of their voter lists?
- How frequently do officials conduct checks against other agency databases? Are these checks automated or is this a manual process?
- What matching criteria is used when conducting voter list maintenance activities? In other words, when verifying voter information and determining if voters have moved or are no longer eligible, how are election officials making sure they’re in fact dealing with the right person?
- Does the state permit sharing of voter list information with other states to conduct voter list data checks between states?
- Does the state belong to the Electronic Information Registration Center (ERIC)?
Are Hand Counts of Ballots More Accurate Than Machine Counts?
When American democracy began, hand counting was the only method available for tallying votes. Counting each vote could sometimes take days, but there were no alternatives until the invention of lever machines in the late 19th century. Lever machines kept a running tally throughout the day and made results available in a matter of minutes. Hand counting ceased being a nationwide norm once lever machines became widespread in the early 20th century. Now, with optical scanners and other tabulation machines, more votes can be counted in less time.
So, counting by machine is undeniably faster than counting by hand, but is it more accurate? A 2004 study by the California Institute of Technology and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a 2016 study from the Election Law Journal both found that machine counts were more accurate than hand counts. More recently, a comparison of machine and hand counts in several New Hampshire recounts arrived at the same conclusion.
Of course, hand counts are often necessary to interpret ballots that machines cannot read (see NCSL’s resource on voter intent laws), which is why some states stipulate recounts must be done by hand.
Perhaps due to tradition, size or the cost of tabulation machines, some jurisdictions may still use hand counts. See Verified Voting’s map of voting tools for more details.
Legislative Action Bulletin
- As of March 1, 44 states, D.C., Guam, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are in regular session.
- Louisiana will convene on March 14, and four states—Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Texas—will not convene in 2022.
- New Mexico adjourned on Feb. 17.
Arizona leads in the number of introductions so far, with 142 bills. Mississippi is a close second with 127. New Jersey is third with 96. Tennessee and Virginia round out the top five with 95 and 93 introductions, respectively.
As of March 1, 13 states have enacted 31 bills. Enactments so far include:
Georgia HB 907 alters the date for even-year tax-related special elections to the third Tuesday in March.
Illinois HB 1953 allows voters to request mail ballots for the 2022 general primary election beginning on March 30.
New Jersey AB 4566 prohibits electioneering within 100 feet of ballot drop boxes, and permits election officials to request law enforcement at polling places and ballot drop box locations to transfer secure election materials.
New York SB 7565 allows voters residing in New York villages to vote absentee on Election Day if they are at risk of contracting or spreading illness.
New York SB 7799 delays implementation of the state’s online absentee ballot tracking system from January 2022 to April 2022.
Ohio HB 93 allows Address Confidentiality Program participants to keep property records with personal identifying information confidential.
Virginia HB 55 requires the State Registrar of Vital Records to electronically transmit weekly data on deceased voters to the Department of Elections.
West Virginia SB 191 authorizes poll clerks to work and be compensated for both full and half days during an election.
News Worth Noting
So Fresh, So Clean: New and Updated NCSL Resources
The NCSL team has been hard at work updating and creating new election resources for state policymakers and staff. Recent highlights include an updated Voting Outside the Polling Place report, detailing state laws on nearly every aspect of absentee/mail voting.
Local Newspaper Column Offers One Way to Build Election Trust
To establish his office as a source of reliable information, Mason County, Wash., Auditor Paddy McGuire began writing a column in his local newspaper during the lead-up to the November 2020 election. Every other week, McGuire would use his “Election Matters” column to briefly educate voters about various election procedures and address misinformation. Read a few of McGuire’s columns here.
Free Training on GIS for Elections
The National States Geographic Information Council and the Center for Tech and Civic Life have created a free training series on how to use geographic information systems in elections, including how GIS can increase election data accuracy. The series is self-directed, and each course takes about 45 minutes to complete. NCSL wrote about GIS for elections in February’s Canvass.
Voter Turnout and Demographics From the Census Bureau
The 2020 presidential election featured record turnout and record use of nontraditional voting methods, according to the report Voting and Registration in the Election of November 2020, released by the U.S. Census Bureau. The report is based on data from the 2020 Current Population Survey Voting and Registration Supplement and highlights patterns in voter turnout over time, as well as how different demographic groups were either over- or under-represented among voters in 2020.
How States Can Protect Election Officials
A new article from Just Security details the challenges facing election officials and the ways states can help. The authors present four proposals for lawmakers to consider: provide election officials with more funding, particularly for physical and cybersecurity; create state-based task forces to respond to threats to election officials; establish enhanced criminal penalties for threats against election officials; and require more robust data collection on the threats election officials report, including the number of investigations and prosecutions that have followed. Just Security is an “online forum for the rigorous analysis of national security, foreign policy” and more.
USC Offers Cybersecurity Training
The Election Cybersecurity Initiative at the University of Southern California is offering free cybersecurity training for political groups of all kinds—including state legislators, political parties and election officials. Want to get a flavor of the USC resources? Check out this disinformation training. (Spoiler: Bill Murray did not really run for president in 2016.)
Election Observation Report
The Bipartisan Policy Center’s recent report Policy to Advance Good Faith Election Observation makes nine recommendations for election observers, watchers and challengers with unanimous support from the center’s Task Force on Elections. Recommendations include providing resources to local election offices to train observers, clarifying which activities observers are allowed to see and establishing clear procedures for how challenges can be resolved.
Politics Is Going to the Dogs
Dog mayors, that is. Every other year, the Teller County Regional Animal Shelter hosts a fundraiser election for the next unofficial mayor of unincorporated Divide, Colo.—while most candidates are canines, this year a cat, goldfish and donkey are also in the running. The election always coincides with nearby Woodland Park’s human mayoral election—but you can guess which one gets more coverage! Check out this roundup of other dog mayors if you need some paws-itive news.
From the NCSL Elections Team
Legislators and legislative staff across the country are busy drafting, debating and voting on bills. If NCSL’s national, bipartisan perspective would be helpful to you, please don’t hesitate to reach out.
Our elections team is ready and waiting to provide you with research, testimony and answers to all your burning questions.
—Mandy Zoch, Wendy Underhill and Saige Draeger