Verifying Voter Registration Records

Published date01 November 2020
Date01 November 2020
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(6) 677 –681
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20920261
State and local election officials maintain voter registration
files that contain a wealth of information, including regis-
trants’ names, birthdates, current addresses, and past vote
histories. These data, which are critical to the administration
of elections, are also extensively used by political campaigns
to target messages and mobilize supporters. In addition,
scholars use these data as sampling frames in voter persua-
sion and mobilization experiments (e.g., Gerber & Green,
2000), making inferences about the effects of registration
laws on who registers and votes (e.g., Fraga et al., 2018;
Holbein & Hillygus, 2016; Shino & Smith, 2018), and vali-
dating survey respondents’ self-reports (e.g., Ansolabehere
& Hersh, 2012; Silver et al., 1986), among other uses.
Importantly, voter registration lists determine who may cast
ballots in an election, which means registration errors could
either permit votes by those who are ineligible or, more
likely, complicate or prevent voting by people with mis-
matches between their registration record and the identifica-
tion they provide at the polls (Ansolabehere & Hersh, 2014).
Thus, the accuracy of these data is important for the effi-
ciency and fairness in election administration, measurement
validity, and the ability of individuals to exercise their funda-
mental right to vote.
Despite the importance of these records for election
administration, campaigns, research, and voters, some have
cautioned their reliability. After the American National
Election Studies (ANES) discontinued its valiant, though
frustrating and costly, efforts to validate respondents’ self-
reports of turnout in the 1980s by checking official records,
Traugott et al. (1992) warned that “ . . . administrative records
should be treated with some care” (p. 13). The 2002 Help
America Vote Act’s requirement that states maintain and
regularly update centralized electronic voting files has
reduced the costs of voter validation efforts but has not com-
pletely eliminated concerns about their reliability (Berent
et al., 2016; Burden, 2014; McDonald, 2007).
Here, we explore the reliability of information found in
Florida’s voter registration file. Our insight is that a voter reg-
istration application is similar to a survey questionnaire, or
even a ballot (Kimball & Kropf, 2005). We explore voter reg-
istration errors employing the total survey error (TSE) frame-
work (Groves & Lyberg, 2010; Weisberg, 2005) by employing
a test/retest methodology (Guttman, 1945) where we ask a
sample of registered voters to verify their voter registration
record. This approach mitigates potential false negative and
positive matches in prior vote survey validation efforts that
may arise from record linkage methodologies (Elmagrmid
et al., 2007). Unlike a prior test/retest mail-back study
(Ansolabehere et al., 2010), we employ an adaptive phone
survey design to probe causal explanations as to why indi-
viduals may provide a survey response inconsistent with their
administrative record. We find 17.7% of respondents fail to
verify at least one field included in the publicly available
Florida voter file, including name, address, birthdate, sex, or
race. These inconsistencies create election administration and
920261APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20920261American Politics ResearchShino et al.
1University of North Florida, Jacksonville, USA
2University of Florida, Gainesville, USA
Corresponding Author:
Enrijeta Shino, University of North Florida, 1 UNF Drive, Jacksonville, FL
32224, USA.
Verifying Voter Registration Records
Part of Special Symposium on Election Sciences
Enrijeta Shino1, Michael D. Martinez2,
Michael P. McDonald2, and Daniel A. Smith2
This study investigates the reliability of Florida’s voter registration files through a phone survey, asking respondents to verify
their records. We find 17.7% of registrants fail to verify at least one identifying piece of information. Applying the total survey
error (TSE) framework, we classify these errors as due to coverage error, measurement error, or processing error. These
inconsistencies create election administration and campaign inefficiencies, which lead to poorer voter experiences, and
challenge the validity of some research based on these data. Furthermore, if registration records do not accurately capture
the members of protected groups, the data are less helpful in both government monitoring and enforcement. We suggest
voter registration forms should be treated like survey questionnaires so as to improve data quality with better form design,
and that some vote overreport bias is attributable to limitations of voter file data, not to respondents’ vote misreporting.
voter registration, voter file, validation, survey

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