Voter Registration Lists: How Big Is “Too Big”? (First of a Series)

The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity (PACEI), also known as the Pence-Kobach Commission, has been the most controversial development in the world of elections and election administration in 2017.  There are many explanations for why PACEI has been appointed, theories about its agenda, and predictions about its possible effects.

To wrestle these considerations into an election science frame, one could argue that the world of the PACEI revolves around voter registration. Of the three parts of the Commission’s mission, the third is to report on “those vulnerabilities and practices used for Federal elections that could lead to improper voter registrations and improper voting…” Central to this point is the questions of whether voter lists contain people who don’t belong on them, and whether the lists are just too inaccurate.

The Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF — the most unfortunate acronym in all of election administration), which is headed by Christian Adams, one of the most active members of the PACEI, brought this question to a head last month by sending notice letters to 248 counties that had reported voter registration rates greater than 100% of the estimated voting-age population.

Clearly, a registration rate greater than 100% is bad optics, but is it evidence of malfeasance in maintaining voter rolls or, even worse, of inadequacies of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA)?

The right answer to this question is, “it’s complicated.”  To help shed light on the question, over the next few weeks I will publish a series of posts that lay out, from my perspective, the issues involved in answering it.

For now, the planned series of posts will cover the following topics.

  • The problem of population mobility. The biggest challenge facing high-quality list maintenance is that the American population is highly mobile.  This affects not only the issue of ensuring that people who have moved away are promptly removed, it also is a major hurdle to getting Americans registered.
  • The problem of data. Controversies that erupt over the size and quality of voter lists turn on what the data show.  Yet the data that are brought to policy fights about voter list quality, both the registration data and data about populations, are imperfect.  Understanding the sources of these data and their limitations will help to place some of the empirical questions in their proper context.
  • The law. Voter registration and voter roll maintenance are governed by laws, most notably the NVRA. The NVRA places limits on when, and why, voters might be removed from voter rolls.  Obviously, this will put a break on the removal of some registrants who have moved away, but by how much is an interesting question. (And, just as important, how many people are kept on the rolls who are still eligible, but haven’t voted recently?)
  • Population dynamics and registration I. With some basics established, let’s look closer at the data.  Because the fundamental mission of registration lists is to facilitate voting, we’ll start by comparing underlying population dynamics (births, migration, and naturalization) with the number of new registrations in states and counties.
  • Population dynamics and registration II. Now, let’s examine the relationship between population movements and list maintenance. Here is where we will encounter most directly the source of the 100%+ registration problem, in the difficulty of removing people from the rolls who have moved out of jurisdiction.
  • What should the future bring? The purpose of this series is to heighten awareness of the myriad issues associated with assessing the quality of voter rolls.  But, it also will provide opportunities to pose issues that the research and election administration communities may want to consider in the coming years.

Some of these topics will take more than one post to get through the basics.  I welcome you to the ride.

As Doug Chapin likes to say, stay tuned…