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Why Is It So Hard For States To Keep Track Of Registered Voters?

And why do voters keep getting purged off the rolls?

Fifty-nine-year-old veteran Larry Harmon got a surprise when he went to cast a ballot in Ohio last year: He was no longer registered to vote. Harmon hadn’t voted since 2008, a result of being fed up with politics and not liking any of his choices. He didn’t know you could lose your registration just for taking a vacation from the political process. Tens of thousands of other voters in the state were taken off the rolls for the same reason, which they might not figure out until they go to cast a ballot this fall — and Ohio will be an important swing state this year.

Voters all over Brooklyn had the same problem in April, when at least 70,000 people were taken off the voter rolls because they hadn’t voted enough in the past. Thousands of voters may have been mistakenly removed for other reasons as well. A baker from Bushwick who had been excited to vote for Bernie Sanders told the New York Daily News, “I’m feeling profoundly snuffed.” And it was hardly the first time this has happened. Ari Berman notes in his book Give Us the Ballot that during the notoriously messy 2000 election in Florida, about 12,000 voters were wrongfully labeled as felons and taken off the rolls. About 44 percent of those were likely African-American.

Election officials do have to periodically defrag voter rolls so that each polling place’s list of voters doesn’t turn into an exhaustive archive of dead people, or people who used to live in the precinct and then moved away. The key, however, is to make sure that you don’t take off voters who still plan on voting at the same polling place. Some states haven’t mastered this skill yet — and these zealous spring-cleaning efforts often have a disproportionate effect on minorities and the elderly. The Ohio ACLU and several other groups are currently suing Secretary of State Jon Husted after voters like Harmon were purged from the rolls for not voting since 2008 — and trying to get the voters back on the rolls before November.

This purging practice wasn’t started by Husted — both Republicans and Democrats previously in his position have pruned the rolls, as have election officials in other states — and voters are usually given a chance to respond to a mailing notifying them that they are scheduled to be taken off. In Brooklyn, affected residents have since been added back, but their suspicions about our electoral system almost certainly remain.

Isn’t there an easier way to keep accurate voter registration lists? Why are we so bad at this?

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Back in 2012, the Pew Charitable Trusts doled out some serious shade in their analysis of voter list accuracy, saying that “voter registration in the United States largely reflects its 19th-century origins and has not kept pace with advancing technology and a mobile society.” In other words, this system mostly sucks because so many states are making voters register using paper. As of right now, 31 states, plus D.C., let people register online. That’s a massive change from 2008, when only Arizona and Washington offered internet registration. But when states aren’t automatically inputting voter information electronically, it leaves room for massive errors.

Say Jane Doe has atrocious handwriting but is also a devoted voter. She filled out her registration card illegibly, forcing the election worker putting it in the system to decipher her hieroglyphics. When the state looks through the voter rolls a few years later and finds no evidence that “Jan Doer” lives at some nonexistent address, she'll likely get taken off the rolls, meaning a big surprise the next time Doe goes to cast a ballot. Pew’s 2012 study found that one out of every eight voter registrations are “no longer valid or are significantly inaccurate.”

The disproportional response to the specter of voter fraud has also prompted many of the less effective methods of cleaning up voter rolls. Although it gets mentioned frequently as a major problem, there is little evidence that much fraud actually happens. In 2012, 0.002397 percent of all votes cast in Ohio could have been cast fraudulently, according to a state report. Regardless, the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program was devised to find evidence of voter fraud in registration lists, with election officials in at least 28 (mostly Republican) states teaming up to compare records and see if voters with the same names and dates of birth cast votes in multiple states. When the records being compared are riddled with errors — and many voters in different states have similar names and birthdays — this system doesn’t provide enough reasons to take voters off lists. Comparing addresses alone can also lead to problems: What if retirees are living in one place part of the year but voting in another? What if students want to vote at their parents’ house but get their financial aid documents sent to their university?

In 2014, Al-Jazeera America found that the Crosscheck program disproportionately targeted minority voters — just like other tools that states have devised to fight nonexistent voter fraud, such as voter IDs. Several Republican leaders have admitted recently that these types of provisions will help the Republican Party in elections. In Ohio, Reuters found that Democrats were far more likely to be among those taken off the rolls in the recent purges than Republicans, who tend to vote more reliably in midterm elections to begin with.

Of course, election administrators have an incredibly difficult job, and they aren’t always given the resources to do that job in the best manner. And changes that could make voters’ lives easier don't tend to be implemented for budgetary reasons.

So is there any fairer way to clean up voter rolls? Pew responded to this issue by helping to form the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC). Like the Crosscheck, the system helps states team up to compare data. Unlike the Crosscheck, however, ERIC isn’t worried about looking at voter history in order to pinpoint past cases of voting discrepancies. Instead, it tries to give member states the most information possible, so that officials can definitely not supposed to be on the rolls. Eighteen states are now involved in the program, plus D.C., and executive director John Lindbeck, who used to deal with these problems on the front lines as an election official in Oregon, says three more states are about to join. One of those new states happened to be Ohio; Husted just announced on Tuesday that the state was joining.

Most importantly, however, every state that decides to join ERIC must promise to reach out to all the eligible voters who aren’t registered that it finds when looking at all this data, making sure that election officials don’t forget that their main goal is to get as many people involved in the electoral process as possible. These mandated outreach efforts registered over 700,000 people as of the end of last year, according to the latest data from David Becker at Pew Charitable Trusts. “We expect that number to increase significantly, as many other states have joined this year,” he told MTV News. “This means that ERIC states will likely reach out to more than 10 million eligible voters to encourage them to register.”

Lindbeck would like all 50 states to get involved in this system eventually, but like everything that has to do with election administration in America, it’s not that easy. In many states, legislation must be passed before admission to ERIC is even possible. ERIC also has dues — the members share costs related to the program — which means spending money to save money. That can be a problem given how few resources are often devoted to elections, and how states are often focused on responding to the last crisis to hit voting (like long lines), rather than thinking ahead. Like many innovations in the business of elections, most of the important advances have been clustered in the same states — like Oregon, which has mail-in ballots, automatic voter registration, and is a member of ERIC — while other states haven’t made any of these changes, and are impossibly far behind. “You can’t change things fast,” Lindbeck says, “and it tests you. You just have to get up every day, keep doing a good job, and lead by example.”

This story has been updated to reflect Ohio's newly announced membership in ERIC.