Votebeat is a nonprofit news organization reporting on voting access and election administration across the U.S. A version of this post was originally distributed in Votebeat’s weekly newsletter.
There are few intractable laws in elections. But if one exists, it may be this: Every time we reach this phase of election cycles — when voter list maintenance starts — passions fly and misconceptions abound.
I thought – and I think many of you did as well – that perhaps this annual freakout was beginning to wane after Democrats and Republicans alike embraced the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, the multi-state list matching program we’ve written about, well, a lot of times. Perhaps that was an illusion (I hope it wasn’t!), because nonsense is now afoot, and has been since last year.
Louisiana, you’ll recall, “paused” its participation in ERIC before withdrawing altogether. Now, Alabama’s new secretary of state, Wes Allen, has removed the state from the program despite his predecessor’s public (and correct) assurances that the program is safe. In Ohio advocates have expressed concern that enrollment in ERIC may be endangered by laws passed preventing nonprofits (of which ERIC is one) from being involved in voter list maintenance. Bills filed in states like Texas and Oklahoma would ban joining multi-state list-sharing programs altogether.
On top of that, now that the federal election is over, states are returning to cleaning up the voter rolls – something required by federal law and many state laws. This tends to anger nearly everyone, though the spread of ERIC has limited the rancor of these debates. Advocates on the left often call even legally required list maintenance “purging” — an allegation of disenfranchisement that was truer before the advent of ERIC and more standardized practices across the country — while those on the right frequently claim maintenance doesn’t go far enough.
But in order to have an informed conversation about this stuff, you have to know why states do it at all. Those who are most likely to impress upon their constituents the need for strict cleaning practices have explained in detail the ways it prevents fraud (and certainly, it does), but that is far from the only reason to keep the rolls as up-to-date as possible:
- Keeping the voter roll clean, and doing it well, is an enfranchising practice. The National Conference of State Legislatures has collected excellent research showing how necessary this practice really is. For example, knowing that a voter moved out of state not only allows one state to remove a voter, but also allows the new state the opportunity to reach out to encourage the person to register to vote. It also ensures that voters continue to receive the correct voting information by mail, a critical step to voter education.
- States are required by federal law to keep their voter rolls clean. The National Voter Registration Act, more commonly known as the Motor Voter Act, passed in 1993. It lays out requirements for states to implement procedures to regularly clean voter rolls and offers specific criteria by which a voter can be removed. Many states have passed laws with more specific requirements to maintain accurate rolls. The Help America Vote Act of 2002 updated list maintenance practices, requiring all states to maintain electronic, statewide voter rolls and coordinate between state agencies to keep information as up to date as possible.
- Clean voter rolls help counties ensure the appropriate allocation of resources. As the Election Assistance Commission points out in this fact sheet (which many states and counties have adapted for their own fact sheets), list maintenance allows counties to prepare to serve their voters. Election directors cannot purchase the correct number of ballots, appropriately staff voting facilities, or confidently direct voters to their polling locations if the rolls are out of date.
None of this is easily done, though. List maintenance has always been a tedious, time-intensive process fraught with controversy and threats of (and actual) lawsuits. ERIC has helped states navigate the steps to a clean roll confidently and with a high degree of accuracy, but as states withdraw from the program it becomes less effective — much of its benefit is in the extreme breadth of available data.
And that’s a shame: The program has helped the country materially improve its voter rolls from where they were a decade ago, and the very politicians demanding fraud investigations are increasing the likelihood that fraud happens in the states they serve. None of it makes any sense at all! I feel like I write some version of that every week, though.
Reach out and tell me about effective campaigns you have seen explaining to voters why list maintenance is necessary. Next week, I’ll include a list of my favorites.
The first state to introduce voter registration was Massachusetts, which did so in 1801 — several decades before most states would institute statewide voter registration policies. Some states, for example South Carolina and then Pennsylvania, instituted registration in urban areas only — state legislators were worried about the transient and immigrant populations that were most likely to live in these places. Connecticut was the next state to pass a law requiring registration statewide in the 1840s. The state had initially adopted a registry law in 1839, but it was repealed after Democrats deemed it “disenfranchising,” and replaced it with their own version in 1842. Now, the only state that doesn’t require registration is North Dakota, which abolished it in 1951.
In Other Voting News
- Hundreds, if not thousands, of jurisdictions will elect people to very local election administration positions over the next two years, elections that will take place against the backdrop of a looming presidential race, Politico reported.
- Despite Republicans’ 2022 election losses, a new internal report from the Republican National Committee is advocating more extensive “election integrity” efforts at the state level, including the creation of new training models for poll workers and observers that are rooted in unproven allegations of fraud by Democrats, the Washington Post reported.
- A federal judge in Georgia is considering whether conservative group True the Vote’s challenges against the eligibility of hundreds of thousands of Georgia voters veered into voter intimidation and whether the group should be barred from making additional challenges, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
- Pinal County will not attempt to claw back a $25,000 performance bonus from former Elections Director Virginia Ross, the Arizona Republic reported, despite problems with the county’s election tally discovered during a statewide recount after her departure.
- Kentucky Secretary of State Michael Adams, an election lawyer, continues to advise clients outside of Kentucky, including the former Senate campaign of new Kansas Attorney General Kris Kobach. Adams has disclosed the work, which is legal, the Lexington Herald-Leader reported.
Jessica Huseman is Votebeat’s editorial director and is based in Dallas. Contact Jessica at firstname.lastname@example.org.