Mobility and Voter Registration (Second in a Series)

(Click here for the first in the series.)

Over 16 years ago, at the first public conference sponsored by the Caltech/MIT Voting Technology Project, a European election expert quipped that America labored under the disadvantage of having never been conquered by Napoleon.

His point was that as the Little Corporal extended his administrative reach across central Europe in the early 1800s, he also extended the requirement that people register with their local governments every time they moved.  When Napoleon’s empire retreated, the registration requirement remained. With residential registration compulsory and everyone’s presence known, it was relatively easy for the government to take responsibility for registering everyone, as the franchise expanded in Europe.

Whether this rosy view of the Napoleonic wars and European voter registration is accurate, it helps frame two features of American social life that make voter registration a challenge.  First, Americans are suspicious of government authority and prize self-reliance.  Second, Americans move all the time and don’t always tell the government about it.

Except for North Dakota, in order to vote in the U.S., you need to be registered, and you need to take the initiative to tell the government you want to be registered.  (Automatic Voter Registration is changing this, but it’s still in its infancy.)  If you move from one state to another, you need to re-register.  If you move from one place to another within a state, you most likely need to re-register, and certainly change your address.

(State laws vary.  The U.S. Vote Foundation has a handy website that’s a good place to start to get more information about what the law is in each state.  A word to the wise:  don’t take anything about voter registration for granted when you move.)

Adding new people to the voting rolls

There were approximately 230 million eligible voters in the United States in 2016, according to the United States Election Project, out of a voting age population of 250 million.  (Here’s a short description of the distinction between voting-age population and voting-eligible population.)  The EAC reports that about 204 million people were on the voter registration rolls.

The most important sources of new registrations come from three sources:  people who turn 18, people who are naturalized, and adults who move.  Here are some rough estimates of the numbers associated with these three big sources of new registrations, for the four years preceding 2016, using government statistics:

  • Turned 18: 17 million
  • Naturalized: 9 million
  • Moved: 147 million
    • Of these, 81 million moved within the same county, 34 million moved from a different county within the same state, 25 million moved from a different state, and 7 million moved from abroad.

(In my next series of postings, I will write about data sources and their pluses and minuses.  For now, use these numbers to grasp the magnitude of the task.)

While an important part of voter registration is snagging new eligible voters (young people and new citizens), the big mass of people relevant to registration comes among the movers.

Removing people from the rolls

Of course, this is just the input side of the equation.  There’s an output side, as well — registered voters who lose eligibility, primarily because they die or move away.

As we’ve already seen, roughly 25 million adults move between states during a four-year period. If 70% of these adults are already registered to vote, that gives us 17.5 million registrants who need to be removed from the rolls in their former state.  In addition, according to the CDC, over 10 million adults die every four years, which means about another 7 million registrants that need to be removed because of death.

In addition to movers and the deceased, registered voters might lose eligibility due to felony convictions or being declared incompetent. Surprisingly, good statistics aren’t kept about the number of annual felony convictions or the frequency of declaring adults incompetent, so at least for now, we will set those aside.

During any given four-year period, roughly 11% of individuals on voting rolls are at risk of becoming “deadwood” on a voter roll. (The 11% figure is calculated by adding together registrants who move and die and then dividing by the number of registered voters.)   A much larger group of voters, perhaps as large as a third of all registrants, need to update their address, having moved within the state or county.

In a future posting, I will match these population statistics up with statistics reported by the EAC about list maintenance activities that correspond to these population movements.  Suffice it to say, population movements necessitate a tremendous amount of paperwork just to keep up with voters.  As well, we will see in future postings that the system as a whole does a decent job of registering voters who become newly eligible, either because of age, naturalization, or moving into a state.  It does a good job of removing voters who die.  The greatest difficulty arises in figuring out who has moved away.

On this last point, it is important to underscore the fact that when people move these days, they are often lackadaisical about notifying government. About 1/3 of Americans don’t notify the Postal Service when they move, which undermines efforts by election officials to use the mails to identify movers.  Furthermore, a recent study by the Democracy Fund revealed that about one-fifth of respondents erroneously thought that they didn’t need to re-register after an out-of-state move.

Putting it all together

 The geographic churn in the American adult population creates a record-keeping challenge for the system of voter registration in the United States.  It is a system that must keep track of 204 million people, most of whom will need to change something about their registration status from one presidential election to the next.  Most know about their obligations to update their registration when they move, but a sizable minority doesn’t.  Most at least tell the Postal Service they have moved, but a sizable minority doesn’t.

This churn is what gives us the snarky stories about Donald Trump’s youngest daughter and advisors being registered in multiple states and letters to local election officials suggesting that there are too many people on their voter rolls.  It is also what is leading many states to create more seamless connections between the voter rolls and other state databases, like the driver’s license file, and to embrace Automatic Voter Registration.  And, it is also what has caused the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) to expand, as it provides a valuable tool to election officials who are trying to keep up with their voters.