Voter List Accuracy

12/17/2019

News:  On June 11, 2018, in a 5-4 opinion in Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, written by Justice Alito, the Supreme Court upheld an Ohio law that allowed the state to cancel voter registration if a citizen (1) did not vote in two years, (2) did not confirm their address and voter registration by returning a prepaid postage card and (3) then did not vote in the following four years (Ohio Rev. Code Ann. § 3503.21). The question before the court was whether this law ran afoul of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), which does not allow states to cancel voter registration based solely on a failure to vote (52 U. S. C. § 20507(d)(1)). The Court held that Ohio's use of a citizen’s failure to vote as a factor in deciding when to remove the citizen’s name from voter registration lists is within the parameters of the NVRA.

This decision likely will not have major implications for current state laws. See below for state-specific procedures.

Introduction

All states take steps to keep their voter registration rolls (the list of eligible voters) accurate and up-to-date.

The goal of maintaining an accurate voter list is to ensure that eligible voters are able to cast a ballot, to keep track of who has voted to prevent anyone from voting twice and, by reducing inaccuracies, speed up the voter check-in process at polling places. Voter registration lists are the foundation of everything else in election administration.

Ensuring the accuracy of a voter list can involve three actions:

  1. Verifying a new voter registration applicant’s information. When a new voter registration application is submitted, the election official verifies the information on the application. This is typically accomplished by checking the applicant’s information against another database, such as the department of motor vehicles (DMV). It also includes a verification of eligibility, so may also include a check of the felon database in states where felons are not eligible to vote.
  2. Updating information on the voter list. This is most frequently because a voter has moved within the jurisdiction or the state and the address on the voter registration record is no longer where the individual lives.
  3. Removing no-longer eligible voters from the list. If a voter has definitely moved out of the jurisdiction, has become otherwise ineligible, or has passed away a removal process may begin.

 

This webpage answers the following questions:

Federal Requirements

The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA)

While states set policy on voter registration, they do so under a federal framework.

At the federal level, the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA, commonly referred to as “motor voter” because it contains provisions about voter registration at department of motor vehicles offices) created a regulatory floor for state maintenance of voter registration rolls (Section 8). These regulations give states rules and guidelines for maintaining voter list rolls. The NVRA allows states to institute other provisions for the maintenance of voter rolls at their discretion above and beyond the NVRA’s requirements, as long as they are uniform and non-discriminatory. The NVRA is a floor, not a ceiling. For more information on the NVRA see this webpage from the Department of Justice.

The NVRA specifies that a voter may be removed from the voter registration list at the request of the registrant. If an election official receives indirect or second-hand information that a voter has moved, it triggers a removal process (rather than the immediate removal of the voter from the list). See the section on Removing Voters from the Registration List below for more information.

The NVRA also requires states to conduct reasonable list maintenance activities to remove deceased persons from the voter rolls (see Removal of Deceased Voters section below). And, it prohibits states from removing registrants from the voter list within 90 days of an election, as a failsafe against accidental removal that would affect a registrant’s ability to vote in the upcoming election.

Note: not all states are subject to NVRA requirements. Six states (Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Wisconsin and Wyoming) are exempt from NVRA requirements because they either had no voter registration requirements or permitted Election Day registration at the time the NVRA was enacted. Even though these states are not subject to the same federal requirements on list maintenance required by the NVRA, they still have state-specific procedures for list maintenance that are similar in many ways.

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA)

In addition to regulations under the NVRA, the 2002 Help America Vote Act (HAVA) requires states to establish statewide voter registration databases and sets basic requirements for computerized list maintenance (sec. 303(2)). This included coordinating with state agency records on felon status and deaths, and the removal of duplicates from the computerized list. It also initiated basic matching protocols for verifying a new registrant’s information by requiring registrants to provide either a driver’s license number or the last four digits of the applicant’s social security number (sec. 303(5)), which is discussed in the next section.

Verifying a New Registrant's Information

HAVA requires states to verify information on a new registrant’s application before the registrant is added to the voter registration list. Voter registration applications ask a registrant to either provide a driver’s license number or the last four digits of a social security number. When an election official receives the application, the information on the application is checked against the state motor vehicle database or the Social Security Administration database, depending on what information was provided by the applicant. Each state determines what constitutes a “match.”

For example, a state may require all of the following information to match exactly to process a voter registration application automatically: driver’s license number, last name, and date of birth. If all of the required fields match exactly, the information is verified and the applicant is registered to vote.

Note that this is often an automated (rather than a manual) process, with the statewide voter registration database and motor vehicles databases automatically exchanging information in order to identify matches.

If there is not an exact match the record may be flagged for the election official to take additional action. First, the election official may attempt to contact that applicant and request additional information (a copy of the applicant’s identification, for example). If that additional information isn’t provided before Election Day, the applicant will still be added to the voter registration list, but will be required to show identification at the polling place before voting. Depending on states laws, the applicant may be able to vote a regular ballot at the polls after showing identification, or will be offered a provisional ballot.

Updating a Voter's Address Information

People move frequently in the U.S. and often don’t contact election officials to inform them of a new address. Election officials proactively try to identify voters who have moved in order to update their address information in the statewide voter registration database. In some cases, if a voter has moved to a new address within the same jurisdiction, an election official may have the authority to immediately change the voter’s address in the statewide voter registration database and then send the voter a confirmation notice indicating the change. If it appears that a voter has moved outside the jurisdiction, different processes apply. Unless an election official has received direct information from a voter that he or she has moved, the voter will typically be moved to an “inactive” status rather than removed from the list entirely. A voter who is inactive through two federal elections can be removed from the list.

Election officials have a variety of methods for confirming and updating voter addresses:

  1. Periodic address confirmation mailings. States may require the state or counties to conduct proactive address confirmation and outreach programs. For example, the Indiana Election Division is required to conduct such a program in every even-numbered year (IC 3-7-38.2). The state sends a mailing to each active voter in Indiana, and then follows up with a second mailing to those whose first mailing was returned as undeliverable. If a voter doesn’t respond to the second mailing or if the second mailing was also returned as undeliverable, that voter’s record is marked as “inactive.”
  2. Check against the department of motor vehicles database. Election officials work with the department of motor vehicles to identify voters who have moved. For example, in Florida the election supervisor receives information from the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles when a registered voter’s legal residence may have changed. The supervisor must then change the registration records to reflect the new address and send the voter an address change notice (Fla. Stat. §98.065). In Michigan, a resident’s voter registration address and residential address in the department of motor vehicles are the same (the databases are integrated). If one changes, the other automatically changes as well, with no additional action needed on the part of the voter.
  3. NCOA checks. States periodically run checks against the United States Post Office (USPS) National Change of Address (NCOA) files to see if a voter’s address information has changed. This is an increasingly important way to verify voter information in an age when voters frequently move. The NVRA includes guidelines for states to follow when implementing a NCOA program, though it is an option for states to do so. According to a report by the National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) on Maintenance of State Voter Registration Lists, laws in at least 36 states authorize the use of NCOA procedures for identifying address changes. For example, in Arkansas county registrars may use NCOA data to determine whether a voter still resides as the registered address. If information indicates that the voter’s address has changed within the county, the voter’s registration will be updated and the voter sent a notice of the change (Arkansas Const. Amend. 51 Sec. 10). If information indicates that the voter moved outside the county, the registrar sends a forwardable address confirmation notice. If the voter does not respond to the notice or the notice is returned as undeliverable, the voter’s registration will be designated as “inactive.”
  4. Information from other sources. Election officials may receive information from another state or jurisdiction that a voter has moved. When a voter fills out a registration application in another state, there is a place to indicate where the voter was previously registered. If the system is working well, election officials in the registrant’s new jurisdiction inform the election officials in the old jurisdiction that the voter has moved. See below for more information about state-to-state data exchanges.

 

Removing Names from the Voter Registration List

In order to maintain the accuracy of the voter list, states must have processes in place to remove voters for a variety of reasons, depending on state laws: change of residence, death, felony conviction or mental incapacitation. Each of these is addressed below.  The NVRA prohibits removing voters simply for the act of not voting.

Some states conduct the bulk of their list maintenance right after a big election, others do it in the months before a big election. This timing may be a statutory requirement. Removing voters after an election minimizes the chances that eligible voters will be inadvertently removed. A state that does the bulk of the list maintenance work just before an election improves the accuracy of the list going into the election, but this is a more aggressive approach and runs the risk that eligible voters are removed before a big election. And, the NVRA specifies that list maintenance activities cannot be conducted with 90 days of a federal elections. See Moved Out, Moved On: Assessing the Effectiveness of Voter Registration List Maintenance for a good description of timing and other legislative concerns with voter list maintenance.

Removal Due to Change of Residence

The NVRA permits a voter to be removed from the voter list after moving under the following circumstances:

  1. A voter confirms in writing that he/she moved from the jurisdiction or wishes to be removed from the voter rolls. To do this a voter could:
  • make the request directly in writing;
  • complete a confirmation card confirming a change of address; or
  • complete a voter registration application in a different jurisdiction or state and provide information about the prior registration, which can be treated as a request to cancel/transfer the prior registration.
  1. The state receives reliable second-hand information that the voter has moved (through the United States Postal Service, for example) AND the voter doesn’t respond to a confirmation mailing sent by the state AND the voter fails to vote or appear to vote between the time the confirmation mailing was sent and the second federal general election.

 

The process for removing voters varies state to state. For example:

  • In Maryland, if an election official receives information indicating that a voter has moved within the state, the officials will mail a forwardable address confirmation notice. If the voter fails to return the confirmation notice, the voter will be placed into inactive status. Voters will be returned to the active registration list if, before two general elections pass, they vote, update their registration, request an absentee ballot, sign a petition, or complete a certificate of candidacy. Otherwise, their names will be removed from the voter registration list.
  • In Louisiana, when a registrar receives word that a voter is ineligible or has moved, the voter is first moved to the inactive list while the registrar confirms the voter’s status. If a voter is on the inactive list for two general election cycles, his voter record is cancelled (La. Acts §18.193). 
  • In New Mexico, 90 to 120 days before a general election the New Mexico secretary of state sends a postage prepaid and preaddressed post card to any voted identified as having a change of address based on NCOA data, or who has had non-forwardable mail returned to county or state election officials. These voters are all marked “inactive” in the voter file. If the voter returns the postcard indicating a new address in the county, the registration record is updated and the voter moves back to “active” status. If the voter votes during the next two general elections the voter is also moved back to “active” status. If the notice is not returned by the voter or it is returned as undeliverable, and the voter doesn’t vote in the next two general elections, the record may be removed (N.M. Ann. Stat. §1-428 et seq., §1-4-33 to §1-4-38, N.M. Admin. Code 1.10.35.9).
  • Ohio uses two methods to identify individuals who are no longer eligible to vote. The first method is using the NCOA database. If a county receives change of address information through NCOA, local election officials send confirmation notices to those registrants, who must then either response to the notice or update their registration information, and vote at least once in the next two general elections to stay on the voter list. The second method compiles a list of voters who have not been “active” for two years. Not “active” in this case includes not voting, or not filling out a new registration form or a change of address form. Confirmation notices are sent to these voters in a process similar to the process outlined above. Here, too, if the registrant does not respond or vote in the next two general elections, he or she may be removed from the voter registration list. Note: this process was recently challenged in the Supreme Court as a possible violation of the NVRA, but the state process was upheld. See Mortiz College of Law at Ohio State University’s case page for Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute and the Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute’s summary for additional information.

Removal of Deceased Voters

The NVRA permits a state to remove a voter’s name from the list if election officials receive reliable information that the voter is deceased. In most states, election officials receive information on deceased voters from the state department of vital statistics, the state department of health, or another agency that handles death records. In some states officials may also gather this information from other sources, such as obituary notices, copies of death certificates, and notification from a close relative. For example:

  • West Virginia requires the statewide database to be coordinated monthly with other agency databases within the state, including the vital statistics database (W. Va. Code §3-2-2).
  • Rhode Island requires the Secretary of State each month to receive a list of names of deceased people from the state’s office of vital statistics (R.I. General Laws § 17-10-1).
  • In addition to receiving a list of residents who died the previous month from the State Department of Health, Oklahoma also includes several other ways to notify the county election board that a voter has died. Anyone can provide the county board with a death certificate for the voter; the next of kin can submit a form that the voter has died along with proof of death; and the administrator of a nursing home, the administrator of a veterans’ center, and a funeral director can also present such a form to the county elections board to begin this process (Okla. Stat. § 4-120.3).
  • Kentucky sets a specific timeline for the process of removing a deceased voter from the registration list. Within five days, the State Board of Elections is required to remove from voter registration records the name of any person reported deceased by the Cabinet for Health and Family Services or “other reliable sources” (KRS § 116.113). 
  • Virginia statute requires that on or before Oct. 1 of each year the State Board conducts a match of the Virginia registered voter lists with the list of deceased persons maintained by the Social Security Administration (Va. Code §24.2-404.3). Virginia also keeps a permanent, separate list of those who were removed due to death or a felony conviction and a list of all removed voters, along with the reason for their removal, for four years (Va. Code §24.2-404).

Some states specify that a voter’s registration must be removed from the state list when the voter is reported deceased by another state. In Georgia, for example, the secretary of state receives lists of deceased Georgia voters from other states and removes those voters from the list (O.C.G.A. § 21-2-231). Indiana requires the State Department of Health to negotiate with similar agencies in other states to obtain information on persons who died outside of the state but maintained a residence in Indiana during the two years prior to their death, and provide that information to the election division.

Removal Due to Felony Conviction

Depending on state regulations, voters can be removed if convicted of certain crimes (see NCSL’s Felon Voting Rights page for information on the varied state requirements for persons with felony convictions to regain voting rights).

In most states the list of voters to be removed due to a criminal conviction comes directly from the courts, the U.S. attorney, or a state agency that handles criminal data. For example:

  • Ohio and Virginia require the clerk of the court and the Central Criminal Records Exchange, respectively, to inform the elections board on a monthly basis of all persons who have been convicted of a crime that would disenfranchise them (Ohio Rev. Code Ann. 3503.18(C) and Va. Code §24.2-409). 
  • Utah leaves it up to the Lieutenant Governor, the head elections official in the state, to determine how often the Department of Corrections should provide information on registered voters who are convicted of a felony, currently incarcerated or released from incarceration (Utah Code Ann. §20A-2-109(3)). 
  • In New Jersey the commissioner of registration receives monthly lists from the county prosecutor and the U.S. Attorney of those convicted of disenfranchising crimes (N.J.S.A. §19:31-17)

Removal Due to Mental Incapacity

The NVRA permits the removal of voters who have been declared mentally incapacitated or incompetent, depending on state law. Typically courts must adjudicate these cases; caretakers do not have authority to determine competency. According to a report from the National Association of Secretaries of State, 31 states (Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Kentucky, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming) have such a provision.

Notification of voters who have been declared incapacitated or incompetent typically comes directly from the court that handled the proceedings. For example:

  • In Texas, the clerk of each court having proper jurisdiction to adjudge a person mentally incapacitated files a list monthly with the voter registrar of those who are totally mentally incapacitated, or partially mentally incapacitated without the right to vote (V.T.C.A., Election Code § 16.002). The registrar shall cancel a voter’s registration immediately if they are on one of these lists (V.T.C.A., Election Code § 16.031).
  • In Florida, each month the clerk of the circuit court provides the department of state with a list of persons who have been adjudicated mentally incapacitated with respect to voting. The department of state forwards the information to county election supervisors (Fl. Stat. § 98.075).
  • In Nevada the clerk of the court must provide a copy of the judgement to the county clerk or registrar of voters within 30 days after a voter has been adjudicated mentally incompetent by a district court (NRS 293.542).

Data Checks Between States

HAVA requires states to identify duplicate records on the registration list. States identify duplicates within their borders, and they can also cooperate with other states to identify potential duplicate records across state lines. If a new voter in a state fills out a voter registration form and indicates that he was a registered voter in another state previously, jurisdictions will typically inform the other state that the voter has moved. In recent years there has also been an increased focus on interstate database comparisons that allow participating states to directly compare their data to identify potential duplicate registrations or inaccuracies. 

The Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) has 29 member-states plus the District of Columbia as of December 2019. The mission of ERIC is to assist states in improving the accuracy of voter rolls, and also increase access to voter registration for eligible citizens. It provides states with a proactive rather than a reactive method of keeping up with their voter lists, and is a good way to keep up with a mobile population. ERIC also uses resources such as the Social Security death index and NCOA data, which means it can be a “one-stop shop” for many list maintenance and data comparison activities. It provides monthly reports to the states

Some states have found that their current statutes allow them to participate in an interstate cross-check program without new legislation. Other states have needed authorizing legislation to participate in these programs. Typically this legislation provides the chief elections officer authority to share voter registration data and other vital data with other states for voter registration purposes. These bills commonly include language requiring the chief elections officer to do whatever is necessary to protect private data from disclosure. Here are some examples: 

  • In 2013 Virginia permitted the state elections board to cooperate with other states and jurisdictions to develop systems to compare voters, voter history and voter registration lists (Va. Code §24.2-404).
  • Nevada allows for any information which the Secretary of State deems necessary to maintain the statewide voter registration list to be shared with other states (Nev. Rev. Stat. §293.675). 
  • Connecticut allows the secretary to cross reference the information in the voter registration system with data or information contained in any state agency's database, a database administered by the federal government, or any voter registration database of another state (Conn. Gen. Stat. §9-19k).
  • Ohio allows the secretary of state to enter into agreements to share information or data with other states or groups of states in order to maintain the statewide voter registration database (Ohio Rev. Code Ann. §3503.15). 

Questions for Legislators

Questions that legislators may want to ask when considering or evaluating a state’s voter list maintenance program:

  • 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 that they’re in fact dealing with the right person?
  • Does the state permit sharing of voter list information with other states, in order to conduct voter list data checks between states?

Additional Resources