ATLANTA – A key element of voting restrictions pushed by Republican state lawmakers this year focuses on cleaning voter rolls to ensure only those eligible are registered. Maintaining accurate voter rolls is a bipartisan concern, but there is little agreement on the best way to do it. Democrats say some of the actions proposed by Republicans are too aggressive and will end up purging eligible voters. Republicans say Democrats are too lax, resulting in bloated voter rolls that undermine confidence and invite fraud.
In Congress, a Democratic voting rights bill would prohibit states from using a person’s failure to vote to initiate their removal from the rolls. Here is an explanation of how voter rolls are maintained, how states do it differently and the conflicts over this year’s legislative proposals.
WHAT ARE VOTER ROLLS AND HOW ARE THEY MAINTAINED?
Every state except North Dakota requires voters to register in advance of an election. A growing number allow for same-day registration during early voting periods and, in some cases, on Election Day. Under federal law, voters can be removed upon their request or through a process based on an indication that they are no longer eligible.
When an election official receives information that a voter has moved, that typically triggers a notice to the voter that must be returned. Otherwise, the voter will be deemed inactive and eventually removed from the rolls unless there is some subsequent contact with the elections office, such as updating their address. Federal law also directs states to remove those who have died from voter lists and prohibits the removal of any voter within 90 days of an election.
ARE THERE EXAMPLES OF PEOPLE BEING WRONGLY PURGED?
Yes. In 2016, New York City’s Board of Elections improperly removed more than 200,000 names from the voter rolls. The same year, 7,700 people in Arkansas were identified for removal for felony convictions, but it was later determined the list included people who had never been convicted of a felony along with those whose voting rights had been restored after their conviction. These examples were cited in a 2018 report by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU that found some states rely on faulty data and lack safeguards to detect and correct problems.
WHAT IS BEING PROPOSED THIS YEAR?
Experts with the Brennan Center, which advocates for greater voting access, say roughly 40 state bills have been introduced this year that could result in voters being improperly removed from the rolls. Some would require election officials to use the National Change of Address database, which people sometimes use for temporary changes. Some legislation also would require the use of citizenship data, but experts say this can quickly become outdated as people gain U.S. citizenship. Election experts say data sources are not perfect and that it’s important for officials to use multiple sources, be transparent and provide opportunities for voters to correct errors.
WHAT IS ‘USE IT OR LOSE IT'?
Federal law prohibits states from removing voters for not voting, what some call “use it or lose it.” But a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2018 said failure to vote in one election could be an indication that someone has moved. It can be used to justify an election office sending a notice to voters asking them to confirm their address and eligibility. Critics, including former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, say people have a right not to vote and that targeting infrequent voters disproportionately affects minorities. Younger votes who tend to move more frequently also are affected.
West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner, in written testimony, said congressional Democrats' voting rights bill “eviscerates” his state’s ability to maintain voter rolls and could lead to “more registered voters than voting age population on registration rolls.”
WHAT HAS PASSED THIS YEAR?
Many of the state bills are still working their way through legislatures, so it will not be known for weeks or months how many become law. In Iowa, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds already has signed into law a GOP-backed bill that not only adds restrictions on early and mail voting but speeds up the process for cancelling the registrations of voters who do not participate in elections.
Voters will be marked in Iowa's voter registration database as inactive if they do not vote in a single general election, which occur every two years. If they miss two more general elections while listed as inactive, their registrations will be cancelled.
Simply getting marked as inactive should have no immediate effect on voters because they can reactivate themselves simply by showing up with an ID at their polling place, said Linn County Auditor Joel Miller, a Democrat and elections commissioner of the state’s second largest county.
Those who are cancelled after years of inactivity will be required to re-register, but Iowa also offers Election Day voter registration. State Sen. Eric Giddens, a Cedar Falls Democrat, said he still worries the change would lead to unwarranted purges because people won't know about the law.
Associated Press writer Ryan J. Foley in Iowa City, Iowa, contributed to this report.