Opinion: Here’s what cleaning up voter rolls means

Georgia is about to inactivate or remove 375,000 voter records. Maintaining an accurate list can still keep voting equitable and accessible to all, the authors say.



News of the inactivation or removal of hundreds of thousands of voter records can raise red flags – especially in a state with a history of voter suppression. So it is no surprise that when the Georgia Secretary of State’s office announced in late July a plan to remove 191,473 inactive voters from the rolls, and later disclosed that they would be transitioning 183,584 voters to inactive status, people noticed.

Transparency is key to public confidence in Georgia’s elections, especially considering Georgia’s historical and contemporary issues concerning voter suppression. By understanding the process behind Georgia’s federally required, routine list maintenance activities and collaborating with election officials, the public can maintain the accuracy of Georgia’s voter registration data while ensuring that voting is equitable and accessible to all.

At VoteShield and Protect Democracy, we have expertise analyzing complex elections data in Georgia and around the country. Our nonpartisan team uses public voter and absentee ballot data to identify potential problems that could affect the administration of, or confidence in, elections. We’ve observed multiple cycles of voter registration list maintenance and interacted with various state and local officials regarding their policies and procedures. We understand the complex web of logistics, politics, state and federal law involved in the administration of voter rolls and how important doing so accurately and effectively is to maintaining our free and fair elections.

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

List maintenance, the process of ensuring the accuracy of a state’s voter rolls, minimizes opportunities for misinformation and disinformation and is mandated by both state and federal law. At the federal level, the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) and the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) require states to meet a minimum standard of “mak[ing] a reasonable effort to remove registrants who are ineligible to vote from the official list of eligible voters” and require them to “conduct a general program that makes a reasonable effort to remove the names of ineligible voters.”

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

States and localities may remove voter records from the rolls for various reasons; one of the most challenging reasons to remove a voter record is a change to a voter’s residence. Because no central list tracks residence changes nationwide, the NVRA outlines a general list maintenance process to keep the rolls accurate while minimizing the chances of accidentally removing non-movers. Suspected movers are placed into an “inactive” status or list, where they are still permitted to cast a ballot and only become eligible for removal from the rolls if they do not vote after two federal election cycles. The ultimate trigger for being put in inactive status is failing to respond to an official mailer, but what initially triggers those mailings can vary dramatically across states.

Most states cross-check their rolls with the United States Postal Service’s National Change of Address (NCOA) list and several integrate their Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or other state databases to identify possible voters who have moved within the state. When election mail is returned as undeliverable, states and localities frequently follow up with an inactivation mailer. Additionally, some states – including Georgia – belong to the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC, which compares voter registration and DMV records across states to identify possible movers for mailings. Finally, a smaller set of states – also including Georgia – send mailers to voters who fail to vote in a set number of elections or years.

While 375,057 voter records is a significant number, neither the numbers of list maintenance removals nor inactivations in Georgia particularly stand out compared to other states. The numbers themselves, however, may not be as important as who is removed as part of this maintenance and how accurate these efforts are in identifying people who have moved. Georgia’s painful history of voter discrimination and suppression must always be considered when analyzing these activities and it serves as a reminder of the importance of civic engagement and access to the political process.

Recognizing the critical need to balance the accuracy of Georgia’s voter rolls with protecting the right to vote, the NVRA requires that the procedures employed to maintain voter registrations for federal office be “uniform, nondiscriminatory, and in compliance with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.” These requirements must remain primary considerations when performing these activities to ensure that the political process is fair and equitable and the right to vote is not infringed upon.

Finally, while the magnitude of Georgia’s list maintenance activities does not stand out now, the Secretary’s transparency in communicating these activities does. Although not alone – Ohio and Michigan, for example, have made similar announcements this year – Georgia’s clarity regarding their anticipated list maintenance activities and the identification of specific records involved provide invaluable opportunities for individuals and civic engagement groups to take action and ensure that every eligible voter has the opportunity to exercise their fundamental right to vote.

Keeping voter registration records up-to-date is complicated, but essential to maintaining a robust democracy. When voter rolls are clean and accurate, the overwhelming and important job that our local election workers do becomes much more manageable, allowing the public to build confidence in an effective and efficient process.

Transparency in the maintenance of the rolls can ease concerns over undue or illegal voter purges by allowing the public to review changes and attempt to remedy issues when they are spotted, preempting misinformation concerning the security and validity of our elections.

In a moment when trust in election workers and confidence in election processes are constantly being undermined, striving to achieve the delicate balance between voter equity, election integrity and access to the polls is more important than ever.

Clint Swift, Ph.D., is a data analyst with VoteShield. Peter Simmons is Georgia Policy Advocate for Protect Democracy. VoteShield is a project of the nonprofit Protect Democracy, a cross-ideological group dedicated to defeating authoritarian threats, building more resilient democratic institutions and protecting our freedom and democracy.