by Dr. Andy Jackson
Director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity, John Locke Foundation
Every two years, in the months following a federal election, county boards of elections remove hundreds of thousands of registrations from voter rolls. One such “purge” is taking place now.
Election boards also regularly remove registrations due to reports that voters have died or moved out of the county.
The North Carolina State Board of Elections (SBE) says such voter roll list maintenance is essential “because it ensures ineligible voters are not included on poll books, reduces the possibility for poll worker error and decreases opportunities for fraud.”
County elections boards use two kinds of list maintenance to make our voter rolls cleaner. The first is what we can call “regular” list maintenance. That is when county boards have proof that someone is no longer legally eligible to vote in the county. That can include evidence that the voter no longer lives in the county, has lost the right to vote due to a felony conviction, or has died.
For example, county elections boards use death lists from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services and the Social Security Administration to remove the registrations of the people on those lists. They also use data from the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and from federal law enforcement officials to remove those who have felony convictions.
County boards can also remove registrations if they confirm that the voter had registered or voted in another state. That was the case with Mark Meadows. The Macon County Board of Elections removed him from the voter rolls last year after they discovered he had registered to vote in Virginia:
Macon County Board of Elections Director Melanie Thibault confirmed April 12 that she had removed Meadows the prior day from the county’s active voter list. …
“What I found was that he was also registered in the state of Virginia. And he voted in a 2021 election. The last election he voted in Macon County was in 2020,” she said.
People removed through regular list maintenance are immediately removed from the voter rolls.
In addition, a county board can put a voter on the inactive list if it receives information that the voter has moved to a new address outside the county and the voter does not respond to a postcard mail from the county board.
A problem with regular list maintenance is that it only catches a portion of registrations associated with people who are no longer legally allowed to vote in the county.
So county elections boards also use a “no contact” process near the beginning of every odd (non–federal election) year.
Suppose a voter has not had any contact with the elections system (such as voting or registering to vote) over the past two federal election cycles (four years). In that case, the county board sends the voter a “forwardable address confirmation mailing.” If the person does not respond or the mailing is returned “undeliverable,” the board places that registration on an inactive list.
Once a registration is placed on the inactive list, officials must wait for another two federal election cycles before removing those registrations. If the person associated with that registration has any contact with election officials (such as voting or submitting a change of address within the county) during those four years, the county board of elections puts that registration back on the active voter list.
Biennial list maintenance is sometimes erroneously called “voter purges.” The term is inaccurate for a couple of reasons.
First, the word “voter” is misleading in this context. Registrations are put on the inactive list after four years and removed after another four years because the people associated with those registrations were not voters during that period.
For the same reason, biennial list maintenance has little to no impact on election outcomes. Those registrations are not producing votes and have not been producing them for a while, if ever.
Second, the word “purge” is misleading in this context. A purge implies that elections boards seek to remove voters from the roll. As seen above, those boards are actually working to avoid removing registrations and only do so after clearing several hurdles.
That erring on the side of keeping registrations on voter rolls is one of the reasons North Carolina keeps hundreds of thousands of names of people who are not legally eligible to vote on voter rolls. One national group, Judicial Watch, sued the SBE and two county elections boards over the large number of registrations on voter rolls. The SBE settled that lawsuit in early 2022.
It is also why the John Locke Foundation has sought ways for North Carolina to further clean its voting rolls through data-sharing with other states. Joining would help improve regular list maintenance by removing more registrations associated with people who have moved out of the county.
You can follow the latest changes in North Carolina voter registrations and see how registrations have changed over the past 14 years at the John Locke Foundation’s Voter Registration Changes page.