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Elections Q&As for Lawmakers: Given Federal Law, How Can We Maintain Clean Voter Rolls?

As states navigate the calendar of maintaining up-to-date voter lists, they often face challenges when it comes to ensuring clean voter rolls within the boundaries of federal law.

By Lesley Kennedy  |  February 28, 2024

About this series: NCSL hosted legislators and legislative staff in December 2023 to answer common questions surrounding election processes and options, with an eye toward bill drafting in 2024 and beyond. Experts delved into topics ranging from absentee and mail voting and the role of poll watchers to technology and maintaining clean voter rolls. State Legislatures News broke down the questions and answers to help inform lawmakers on the intricacies of elections. Check Elections Q&As for Lawmakers often for more information.

The Expert: Commissioner Don Palmer, U.S. Election Assistance Commission

The accuracy of voter rolls is critical for efficient election administration and voter confidence. But as states navigate the calendar of maintaining up-to-date voter lists, they often face challenges when it comes to ensuring clean voter rolls within the boundaries of federal law.

"It really is to the benefit of the voter that we make sure the voter experience at the polling place is a positive one," Palmer says, noting the issues that arise when voter rolls are not accurate, such as provisional voting, long lines and congestion at polling places. He points to the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), which sets federal guidelines, including restrictions on removing voters from the rolls within 90 days of an election and requirement of voters who have moved to request removal in writing. 

Top Two Takeaways

  • The importance of conducting regular list maintenance cannot be overstated, as up-to-date voter rolls are essential to prevent irregularities and issues such as congestion or long lines at polling places, voters going to the wrong polling place, and the overuse of provisional ballots.
  • Additional resources and the use of new technology for list accuracy are critical to achieve clean voter rolls, particularly during high-volume election periods like presidential elections.

Palmer recommends a "regular program of list maintenance" and suggests that although the National Change of Address (NCOA) is a tool recommended as a safe harbor by the NVRA, it is becoming less effective as it is used less frequently by voters, particularly younger and highly mobile populations.

"About 1% of voters will tell (election) folks when they're moving, and yet they will tell everybody else,” he says. “Most people just don't do that (inform election offices) of their move."

To address these concerns, Palmer recommends increasing the resources to election offices for list accuracy, particularly during presidential election years, to manage the higher volume of list maintenance activities and address changes, including additional funding for dedicated personnel and technology upgrades to aging voter registration databases.

Palmer also suggests leveraging commercial data vendors to supplement NCOA information. "Experian or other commercial data can help provide accurate results for the new or best address of the voter," he says, adding that this approach has been used successfully in places like Orange County, Calif., and other jurisdictions to reduce mailing costs and reduce the high number of inactive voters who have moved.  Many of these inactive voters will respond to a mailing that they are no longer residents and wish to be removed from the previous voter registration list.

As for public education, Palmer believes it is crucial to inform voters of their responsibility to notify the election office of any change in address and update their registration information to their new residence.  

"We’ve got to do something to help encourage voters to inform election officials of their moves," he says, encouraging a partnership between state and local entities to better educate the public to change the address with election authorities.

Lesley Kennedy is NCSL’s director of publishing and digital content.Top of Form

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