“Our Voter Rolls Are Cleaner Than Yours”: Balancing Access and Integrity in Voter List Maintenance

Published date01 September 2020
Date01 September 2020
AuthorThessalia Merivaki
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-170X5ILBRayA5E/input 906472APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20906472American Politics ResearchMerivaki
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(5) 560 –570
“Our Voter Rolls Are Cleaner Than
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
Yours”: Balancing Access and
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20906472
Integrity in Voter List Maintenance
Thessalia Merivaki1
Accurate voter lists facilitate access to the electoral process, indicate efficient voter list maintenance, and reinforce electoral
integrity. Errors in voter records often result from variation in practices that are difficult to avoid given the decentralized
structure of election administration in the United States. In many states, localities lack capacity to efficiently complete
voter list maintenance, especially when pressured to keep “clean” voter rolls. I argue that local challenges remain when
maintaining voters’ registration and voting history information, which undermines the quality of voter lists and the integrity
of the electoral process. I analyze Mississippi’s Statewide Election Management System (SEMS) records and find that voter
registration and voting history errors are linked to the county’s active and inactive registered voter rates and demographic
characteristics. These findings confirm that local variation in voter list maintenance can impact voters depending on their
voter registration status and can result in premature voter list removal.
voter list maintenance, NVRA, election administration, Mississippi
In recent years, the debate over electoral access and integrity
pressured to keep their voter rolls “clean” due to the constant
has included the management and maintenance of voter
threat of being held accountable for undermining the integ-
records, most notably how voters are removed, how active
rity of elections within their jurisdiction.
and inactive voter records are maintained, and how voter
In this article, I examine the administrative, electoral, and
registration databases are protected from malicious interven-
demographic factors that impact the number of erroneous
tions that might alter voter records. Researchers find that
voter registration and voting history records in a state’s voter
voter records are prone to errors and missing information
rolls. I argue that missing or nonsensical voter registration
that is necessary to process eligible voters at the polls
and voting dates may impact both active and inactive voters
(Ansolabehere & Hersh, 2014; Merivaki & Smith, 2019).
by triggering the voter removal process. Active voters with-
Voters confirm that such errors have left them out of the vot-
out a voting date on record may be placed on an inactive list,
ing process, as recent evidence from Georgia, California, or
while inactive voters may be a step closer to being removed
Ohio demonstrate (Liptak, 2018; Myers, 2018; Scott, 2018).
(Alvarez & Hall, 2014). Access to voting can be restricted or
This raises concerns about the integrity and accuracy of elec-
denied to both, as their eligibility may be challenged at the
tions, especially if some voters, such as minorities and the
polls, in which case they must vote provisionally (Merivaki
youth, are disproportionally more likely to experience prob-
& Smith, 2019). I examine Mississippi’s Statewide Voter
lems with casting a vote.
Registration Database System (SEMS) after the 2016
Local election officials are often scrutinized for the
Presidential election and assess the quality and accuracy of
administrative decisions they make, particularly when they
voter registration records across Mississippi’s 82 counties.
result in eligible voters being denied access to voting because
Mississippi is of particular interest because it has not mod-
their voter registration record is not verified at the polls.
ernized voter registration since the National Voter Registration
Administrative errors, such as a misspelled name, a missing
Act of 1993 (NVRA) and operates a hybrid voter manage-
date of birth or last voting date, or a duplicate voter registra-
ment database, where county election officials have exclusive
tion record might create issues for eligible voters (Alvarez &
Hall, 2014). Despite the push toward professionalization in
1Mississippi State University, Mississippi State, USA
election administration, localities face serious administrative
Corresponding Author:
challenges that deter them from efficiently completing their
Thessalia Merivaki, Mississippi State University, 189 Bowen Hall,
tasks (Burden et al., 2012; Burden & Neiheisel, 2013; Hale
Mississippi State, MS 39762, USA.
& Slaton, 2008; Montjoy, 2008). At the same time, they are
Email: lia.merivaki@pspa.msstate.edu

control over voter list maintenance, while the state manages
apply to register to vote every day in-person, by mail, through
the statewide voter record database (SEMS). I find evidence
registration drives or online. Local election officials process
that the size of active and inactive registered voters and the
every application submitted on a rolling basis (Merivaki,
county’s sociodemographic characteristics create administra-
2019). They mail voter registration cards to newly registered
tive challenges for localities, strongly suggesting that local
voters and keep records of registration applications that are
election officials may not be adequately equipped to perform
incomplete or invalid. After a federal election, they update
their administrative tasks. These findings raise important
the voters’ active and inactive status. They send confirmation
questions about how hybrid states manage voter records in
cards to registered voters who have not responded to a mail-
the absence of voter registration modernization and have
ing by their local election office, have not responded to a jury
implications about the equal treatment of voters depending on
duty request, or have been inactive—no voting history—for
where they reside (Merivaki & Smith, 2019).
many election years.3 Even in states where Online Voter
Registration (OVR) is an option, differences in how the
Voter List Maintenance and Local
information is transferred may also result in erroneous
Election Administration
records, although OVR significantly minimizes these risks
when compared with paper-based voter registration (The
The removal of registered voters from voter lists has domi-
Pew Charitable Trusts, 2014).
nated the scholarly discussion about the quality and effi-
Errors in this process can have tangible impact for regis-
ciency of the voter record maintenance. States and localities
tered voters. A missing date in an active voter’s record may
are criticized when the number of registered voters exceeds
be enough to trigger the removal process by marking her as
the number of eligible voters, as it might indicate the exis-
inactive. Inactive voters may be prematurely removed in the
tence of ineligible citizens, deceased, or noncitizens in the
absence of a voting date or registration date. Missing or non-
voter records. As a result, states are pressured, by legal
sensical voter registration and voting history entries may
means, the threat of litigation or state mandates to “clean”
also trigger the removal process for active and inactive vot-
their voter rolls. Cleaning voter rolls, however, is narrowly
ers, as it is may not be easy to determine when a voter regis-
understood as removing ineligible voters. Whereas this is a
tered to vote or last voted. As a result, errors that appear
big component of voter list maintenance, and one that is reg-
minute can significantly restrict a voter’s access on Election
ulated by federal and state laws, it is not the only one.1
Day, because the risk of challenging her eligibility at the
Researchers find that voter lists across the states contain
polls increases, and so do the chances that she votes provi-
errors which often occur during the process of entering new
sionally (Merivaki & Smith, 2019), or being turned away
voters’ or updating existing voters’ information, mainly
from the polls (AllOnGeorgia, 2019).
because voter registration information is entered manually
Since the adoption of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA)
from paper forms to a computerized database (Alvarez et al.,
in 2002, statewide associations have proliferated in order to
2009; Ansolabehere et al., 2010; Ansolabehere & Hersh,
share information and expertise among local election offi-
cials (Hale & Slaton, 2008; Kimball et al., 2006; Hale et al.,
States have adopted different approaches to manage voter
2015). States vary in the level of oversight they exert over
records, with 15 states currently operating either a hybrid
localities, especially in terms of mandated state audits or
(nine) or a bottom-up (six) voter database management struc-
voter list maintenance trainings and have additionally
ture. These structures may not be as efficient as top-down
attempted to minimize errors in voter records by allowing
structures, especially in the absence of voter registration
localities to operate electronic poll books to update the vot-
modernization reforms (Hall, 2013). According to the er’s history. However, purchasing electronic poll books is an
Election Assistance Commission (EAC), state and local elec-
additional cost which many...

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