It’s a typical day in the U.S.: A moving truck hauls belongings across town, someone turns 18, a loved one dies. For election administrators, these life events are noteworthy as they constitute changes to a voter’s registration. Tracking each change is a herculean, though essential, task.
Voter registration lists are the foundation for running great elections, identifying everything from who is registered to vote to the style of ballot voters receive and the races they can vote on. List maintenance is the process all states use to keep their lists up to date.
Everyone benefits from accurate voter rolls, and each year states get better at refining their 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 and the Help America Vote Act of 2002.
The Voter Registration Act limits when list maintenance verification activities can happen and specifies the reasons a state may remove a voter from the roles—due to a felony conviction, mental incapacity, at the voter’s request or because a voter no longer lives in the jurisdiction. The act 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 Voter Registration Act and are not required to follow the law’s notification process for removal.
The Help America Vote Act requires states to maintain voter registration lists 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 these federal laws are just the baseline. States can and do go beyond their requirements, and improving list maintenance processes is an evergreen topic for lawmakers. This month’s edition of The Canvass, NCSL’s election policy newsletter, outlines several areas that states have addressed, with examples of recent enactments.
Help America Vote requires states to cross-reference their voter rolls with data from state death records. This allows states to cancel the voter records of deceased voters. (Side note: When a voter dies after casting an absentee ballot and before Election Day, states differ on whether the ballot should be counted.)
Some states use additional data sources to verify deaths, going beyond the requirements of Help America Vote. Fourteen states accept obituaries for verification of a voter’s death. Five states—Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Minnesota and 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 the 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 monthly reports 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 registrations. See a full breakdown of additional data sources and practices for removal here.
Legislative action in 2021 on voters with felonies was varied. Regarding 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 list maintenance. Lawmakers in these states argue that if people can’t be jurors because of their citizenship status, they can’t be voters, either.
Voter Address Changes
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 program, a dataset containing about 160 million change-of-address records. Thirty states require the use of USPS data, three states receive it through their ERIC membership (see below) but don’t require it, and 12 states permit but do not require the use of the 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 and Louisiana also enacted legislation related to identifying voter address changes.
ERIC and Voter Registration Data
ERIC, the Election Registration Information Center, is an interstate compact that helps states to improve voter roll accuracy by serving as a one-stop shop for list maintenance and data comparison. 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. ERIC membership includes 30 states—large and small, Republican and Democratic—and the District of Columbia.
Earlier this year, Louisiana announced it would suspend its membership in ERIC, citing concerns of partisan funding sources and data privacy. In 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 lawmakers also passed bills in 2021 enabling or requiring their states to join ERIC.
Recent Legislative Action
Fourteen states enacted list maintenance legislation in 2021. In addition to the bills mentioned above, states acted on a variety of other 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.
At least 104 list maintenance bills have been introduced in 26 states this year. 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 NCSL’s State Elections Legislation Database.
Saige Draeger is a policy associate in NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.