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Trump wants voter registration investigated. This is how 20 states are already doing it.

- January 30, 2017
Wristbands await voters at a polling station during early voting in Chicago on Oct. 14. (Jim Young/Reuters)

In a Wednesday morning tweet, President Trump returned to his campaign refrain of widespread electoral problems and called for “an investigation into voter fraud, including those registered to vote in two states.”

Within hours, it was revealed that at least five people close to Trump — daughter Tiffany, son-in-law Jared Kushner, adviser Stephen K. Bannon, treasury nominee Steven Mnuchin and press secretary Sean Spicer — are registered to vote in more than one state.

They are not alone. A 2012 Pew Charitable Trusts report estimated that 2.75 million Americans were on the voter rolls in more than one state and that 1.8 million dead people remained on the rolls.

Like Trump’s family members and associates, these are people who registered to vote legally, but when they moved or passed away, their names were not deleted from voter lists.

It’s not illegal to be registered to vote in more than one state, but it is illegal to vote more than once. By holding more than one registration, a voter could conceivably drive across state lines to cast ballots in different places. Or a voter could request an absentee ballot in one state and vote in person in another state. Such scenarios, even if only a few instances have actually occurred, concern many Americans.

Whose responsibility is it to ensure that voter lists are accurate?

Is it the job of the voters? When they move and register in a new state, should they remember to contact the clerk’s office in their former state to cancel their registration? Should relatives or friends of a person who just passed away be charged with notifying the county clerk?

Some diligent Americans do this. But most expect that the state will find out about a move or a death through government records. This is where the system breaks down.

There’s no national voter registry

In many other democracies, elections are administered at the national level. But in the United States, the states run elections. That mean sthat, instead of having a national voter registry, the United States has 50 state voter lists. It’s up to the states to figure out how to maintain the integrity of those lists, including how much time and money to invest in regularly updating the rolls.

On average, Americans move more than 10 times during their lives: Students move to college, workers move for better jobs, and retirees move to sunnier climates.

Further complicating matters, some people keep residences in several states.

People who want to vote must register in their new state. What happens to their previous registration depends on which state they are in and whether that state is a member of the Electronic Registration Information Center.

But wait, there’s the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC).

The Electronic Registration Information Center was established in 2012 with logistical and financial support from the Pew Charitable Trusts. Seven pioneer states agreed to coordinate efforts, share information, and make better use of government records and technology to enhance the integrity of their electoral rolls.

ERIC is now an independent organization, fully funded by member states, with no philanthropic support. Membership has steadily grown to 20 states and the District of Columbia. ERIC has so far reported to its members more than 5 million inaccurate and outdated registrations, including 166,000 deceased voters whose names were still on the rolls in these states.

ERIC works to identify inaccurate registrations by electronically analyzing and matching U.S. Postal Service change-of-address records, federal death records, vehicle registrations and voter registration records from member states.

ERIC has also analyzed data from its members to provide estimates of the number of inaccurate and out-of-date voter records for nonmember states.

Recently, ERIC provided an analysis for elections officials in Florida that estimated that nearly 1 million voter records in the state needed updating because voters had moved or died. Despite Florida’s pivotal role in presidential elections, constant media scrutiny of its election processes and calls by county elections officials who want their state to join ERIC, Florida is not yet a member.

Why aren’t more states members of ERIC?

Twenty states and D.C. are members of ERIC, leaving 30 that have not yet joined, including Arizona, California, Florida, Missouri, New York and Texas. With all the attention to voter registration inaccuracies during the campaign, why aren’t all states on board with efforts to enhance the accuracy of their electoral rolls?

It takes a financial commitment and political will to pass state legislation to join ERIC.

In some states, vocal concerns about the accuracy of voter registration rolls have not been met with the same level of commitment or urgency to correct them. Some officials have used cost as an excuse, even though the costs of ERIC membership are modest compared with most state expenditures. Elections officials and lawmakers in some states have been able to ignore the problem because there has been no political cost and no adverse publicity associated with ignoring it.

But Trump’s tweets have highlighted the issue in a new way. His claims of fraud are not based on evidence. But there’s plenty of evidence of inaccurate records and, therefore, vulnerability to fraud.

Fixing the problem doesn’t require politicians to create a new system. ERIC is already there.

Mary Stegmaier is an assistant professor at the Truman School of Public Affairs at the University of Missouri. Her research focuses on elections in the United States and abroad.  

John Lindback is the executive director of ERIC. He previously served as director of elections for the Oregon secretary of state and, in 2008, as president of the National Association of State Election Directors.

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