Accurate voter registration records are one of the most effective ways for states to protect the integrity of their elections and increase the confidence of voters in the election process. Election officials must ensure that only eligible voters are registered to vote, that all registration information is entered into electronic systems accurately, and that once registered, a voter’s information remains accurate.
Voters are often registered in more than one state or locality due to poor communication among election officials through no fault of the voter. Dual registrations can render voters ineligible to vote or even subject them to investigation and false charges of vote fraud. In addition, a voter registration that exists for a person who is not an eligible voter, whether the person has moved, is deceased, does not exist, or is ineligible, presents an opportunity for identify theft and a fraudulent or mistaken vote to be cast with virtually no chance of being detected under current law. Errors in the voter registration rolls lead to long lines at the polls, requiring election judges to obtain the correct information to determine voter eligibility, thus inconveniencing voters who have taken the time to vote.
The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) requires states “to protect the integrity of the electoral process by ensuring the maintenance of an accurate and current voter registration roll for elections for Federal office.”
While some states and localities are beginning to take this problem seriously and improve the accuracy of these records, others are afraid to undertake the effort for fear of political reprisals or litigation or simply lack the resources to maintain accurate records. Maintaining accurate records requires cooperation among different government agencies—state and local, state and federal, between the states, and between agencies within the same state.
Bipartisan presidential commissions have recommended actions to increase the accuracy of voter registration records. The 2005 report of the Commission on Federal Election Reform (“Carter-Baker Commission”) recommended accurate voter registration lists and explained the problems caused by inaccurate lists:
A complete, accurate, and current voter roll is essential to ensure that every eligible citizen who wants to vote can do so, that individuals who are ineligible cannot vote, and that citizens cannot vote more than once in the same election. A voter registration list must contain all eligible voters (including new registrants) and must contain correct information concerning the voter’s identity and residence.
Incomplete or inaccurate registration lists lie at the root of most problems encountered in U.S. elections. When a voter list omits the names of citizens who believe they properly registered or contains incorrect or out-of-date information on registered voters, eligible citizens often are denied the right to vote. Invalid voter files, which contain ineligible, duplicate, fictional, or deceased voters, are an invitation to fraud.
The bipartisan Presidential Commission on Election Administration (PCEA) said in its 2014 report:
Whether the goal is ensuring that only duly qualified registered voters vote or that more people are able to vote more easily, election officials across the political spectrum recognize the value of accurate and manageable voter rolls. Yet most statewide voter registration systems aggregate county and local lists and registration records that originate on paper. With so many jurisdictions responsible for the registration lists, their quality is uneven and too many records are inaccurate, obsolete, or never entered into the system. . . .
Accurate voter lists are essential to the management of elections. Keeping track is a Herculean task. On Election Day 2012, the registration system had 191.8 million records and 130.3 million voters managed by officials in 50 states and approximately 8,000 local election offices, with the lists used at 186,000 precincts.50 The quality of the list can affect the ability of people to vote, of election offices to detect problems, and of courts and others monitoring elections to detect election fraud or irregularities. A list with many incorrect records can slow down the processing of voters at polling places resulting in longer lines.
To ensure accurate voter registration records, the PCEA recommended online voter registration and interstate sharing of voter registration list data.
The most effective tool to maintain accurate voter registration records is interstate data sharing. There are two systems for sharing voter registration data, and it is vital that states belong to both to ensure that all duplicate registrations are identified. The two existing data sharing programs are the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program (IVRC or Crosscheck) and Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC). In 2016, only nine states participated in both: Alabama, Colorado, Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia.
The bipartisan PCEA strongly endorsed data sharing in its report:
Every effort needs to be made to facilitate coordination among the states in the development of accurate and up-to-date registration lists. . . . [D]ata-matching tools have advanced to the point where seemingly intractable registration problems can be addressed by simple coordination between the states using publicly available databases concerning “who” lives “where.” . . . Such projects should strive to improve the accuracy of voter registration records, enhance the ability to detect ineligible voting and prosecute voter fraud, reduce administrative costs, and increase registration rates.
The American Voting Experience: Report and Recommendations of the Presidential Commission on Election Administration
Building Confidence in U.S. Elections: Report of the Commission on Federal Election Reform
Federal Role in Voter Registration: The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 and Subsequent Developments (Congressional Research Service)
Inaccurate, Costly, and Inefficient: Evidence That America’s Voter Registration System Needs an Upgrade (Issue Brief by The Pew Center on the States)
Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program (PowerPoint Presentation)
National Conference of State Legislatures – Voter List Accuracy