Today we begin “Maintenance Monday,” a series where every Monday this month a state or local election official will share their insights on the voter list maintenance process and why it’s essential to running fair and accurate elections. Leading off this series is Neal Kelley, Orange County, California Registrar of Voters and chair of the EAC Board of Advisors.
Orange County has more than 1.5 million active registered voters and is one of the most populous jurisdictions in the nation. With this large and mobile population, Neal Kelley and his colleagues have taken some innovative approaches to maintaining an accurate voter list.
EAC: Why is voter list maintenance important and what do you think is crucial for voters and policymakers to know about the process?
Kelley: We know from research that many voters believe their voter registration is automatically updated when they move. But the opposite is actually true – voter registration databases are one of the most difficult government databases to maintain. Why? Because there are no requirements for voters to update their information. Election officials should be “chasing” voters to keep their lists up-to-date. Think about this fact – the first thing most people do when they move is to notify their family, banks and schools – which means that voter registration is often the last thing on their mind.
EAC: Describe how you conduct voter list maintenance. How do your state and county officials work together?
Kelley: In California election officials are required to use United States Postal Service data on address updates provided by registered voters. This process is called the “National Change of Address”, or NCOA process. Counties process this data provided by the state and scrub their lists, providing data on new addresses listed by voters.
This is a good process, but in Orange County we take this several steps further. In 2013 we worked with the Legislature to have a bill introduced that would allow updates to voter registration records using third-party data. Each year we scrub our list against credit header data, which provides detailed updates to voter addresses typically not found in NCOA data. For instance, if a voter rents a new apartment their address would be triggered and picked up by the third-party data. If that same voter does not send in an update to USPS, which often happens, this data would never be picked up. California law only allows for a voter’s name and address to be transmitted to third-party data vendors – no personal identifying information is provided (such as driver’s licenses, social security numbers, etc.).
EAC: What do you do to ensure that voters are not incorrectly removed from the voter rolls?
Kelley: Ensuring voters are not incorrectly removed from voter rolls is a critical job for election officials. The law requires that we must receive confirmation from any voter before we remove them permanently (or cancel) them from the database.
In Orange County we have three categories of actions taken on voter records – “active”, “inactive”, and “cancelled” status. When we scrub our lists against third-party data we generate a post card for every “hit” on a new, or changed address. These cards are mailed to the voters – if they have not voted in any election in four years (pursuant to federal law) and they don’t respond to our mailing we place them in the “inactive” file, but never cancel them. A voter classified as “inactive” can re-activate at anytime by voting at a polling place or requesting a vote-by-mail ballot. On the other hand, if the voter responds and confirms that they have moved out of Orange County, we cancel them. Or, conversely, if they confirm a new address we keep them as an “active” voter and update their record.
What’s the difference between the three categories?
“Active” voters receive all mailings (including ballots) and can vote during any election.
“Inactive” voters do not receive any mailings, but they are still listed in our official rosters and can vote during any election.
“Cancelled” voters do not receive any mailings and cannot vote in any election without re-registering.
EAC: How does voter list maintenance help you administer and plan for elections?
Kelley: By working to keep our list as “clean” as possible we are able to confidently send out sample ballots and ballots to voters’ correct addresses – regardless of whether they’ve notified our office or not. Recently we received a call from a former Orange County voter, now living in Austin, Texas, who received a notification card from us asking that he confirm his move to Texas. He was “shocked” that we found him since he told no one of his move. Because of our third-party data scrubs we were able to locate him, confirm his move out of state, and cancel his California voting record. Without our list maintenance a ballot would have been mailed to his old Orange County address – this planning protects the voter list, reduces cost, and eliminates waste.
EAC: How does your office define success in the voter list maintenance process?
Kelley: We measure several metrics – such as our undeliverable rate (the rate of returned mail due to old address data), the number of confirmed out-of-county notifications based on third-party data, and the number of address updates (from both NCOA and third party data). In addition we use national death data – this enables us to monitor deaths of Orange County voters that travelled out of state and passed away. This data is not available in the standard in-state death information we typically receive. We utilize the out-of-state death metric as an additional measure of success (this is usually about 1,000 additional voters per year).
EAC: What additional resources would help you enhance your current voter list maintenance procedures and make improvements to your voter rolls?
Kelley: All of this additional list maintenance costs money – between the data scrub, mailing, data entry, etc. we spend approximately $.50 per voter record – this adds up in a county of over 1.5 million voters. But the payoff is worth it – considering that is costs about $3.50 per voter to mail a sample ballot and ballot. If we could utilize these data scrubs each quarter we would have even cleaner lists – as it is we can only afford to do this additional step once per year.
EAC: What is one tip or best practice you would share related to voter list maintenance?
Kelley: Be diligent and take the extra steps to go beyond what is required – generally this helps capture a huge block of voters that move but never notify the USPS. Yes it is extra work but improves perception among the public, decreases costs, and is just a best practice we should all employ.
A big thank you to Neal for sharing all the great work he and his staff do. And keep coming back to our blog this March to hear more from election officials about how they maintain accurate voter lists.