John Locke Update / Research Brief

Nearly 400,000 NC voter registrations could be removed, but it’s no “purge”

posted on in Civil Society, Law & Regulation
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  • Biennial voter registration list maintenance is a normal part of keeping lists current and helping prevent election fraud
  • Fewer registrations will be removed this year than were in 2019
  • List maintenance is a “lagging indicator” that does not affect partisan voting power in upcoming elections

If you go to the Carolina Election Voter Registration Changes page this week, you will notice that North Carolina’s voter registration numbers are declining and have been for the past several weeks. It’s not a sign that hundreds of thousands of voters have suddenly decided to leave the state; instead, it is the biennial list maintenance, a normal part of making sure that North Carolina’s voter lists are up to date.

Biennial list maintenance is not a “purge”

In a media release on January 14, the North Carolina State Board of Elections (SBE) stressed why the biennial list maintenance is important:

Voter roll list maintenance is important because it ensures ineligible voters are not included on poll books, reduces the possibility for poll worker error and decreases opportunities for fraud.

One of the common misconceptions about biennial list maintenance is that it involves election workers scouring their roll books looking for registrations to remove. In fact, each county board of elections already has a list of registrations that have been considered inactive over the past two election cycles – a total of eight years. If the voter associated with that registration has not voted during that period, the registration is removed. It is a simple matter of list matching that can be done in a short period.

So how does a voter registration get on the inactive list? Again, the person associated with that registration must not vote for two full election cycles. Those individuals are then sent a contact form from the county board of elections. If the person does not return the form, or if it comes back to the board of elections marked as undeliverable, that registration goes on the inactive list. If the person returns the form, they are placed back on the active voter list.

In short, biennial list maintenance does not fit the image of a “purge” of voters. No registrations are removed from voter rolls until after at least eight years have passed since their last vote and the board of elections has attempted to contact the voter.

In addition to biennial list maintenance, county boards of elections also remove registrations any time they receive confirmation that a voter has died, moved out of the county, or been convicted of a felony. Biennial list maintenance is needed because those other forms of updating the voter rolls do not include everyone who is no longer eligible to vote in the county.

Fewer registrations will be removed this year than were in 2019

Unlike the 2019 list maintenance, when over 575,000 registrations statewide were removed in one week, list maintenance is less coordinated this year, with the process stretching out over two to three months.

Bladen was the first county to conduct its biennial list maintenance, which occurred on the week of December 12. A look at voter registration changes for that week found a net decline of 1,684 registrations. By comparison, Bladen County had a net decline of 2,063 registrations during list maintenance in 2019, an early suggestion that fewer registrations will be removed this year than were in 2019. A look at a random selection of five of the 81 counties that have completed their list maintenance so far supports that suggestion (see Table 1).

Table 1: Comparison of net changes during list maintenance period between 2019 and 2021 in five randomly selected counties

County 2019 net change 2021 net change
Forsyth -19,919 -13,167
Robeson -7,962 -8,504
Rockingham -4,702 -2,595
Swain -1,444 -631
Warren -1,012 -755

In addition, the SBE estimates that 380,000 voter registrations will be removed during the biennial list maintenance.

More Democrats are being removed than Republicans, but that will not advantage Republicans in 2022

List maintenance has not affected the major political parties equally. From December 5, 2020, to January 23, there has been a net decline of 131,704 Democratic registrations, compared with a net decline of just 76,941 Republican registrations (see Table 2).

Table 2: Net change in voter registration by party from December 5, 2020, to January 23, 2021, after biennial list maintenance

Party January 23, 2021 registration Net change from December 5, 2020
Democratic 2,498,273 -133,694
Unaffiliated 2,354,863 -109,793
Republican 2,169,877 -80,560
Libertarian 45,003 -2,068
Constitution 5,167 +343
Green 3,895 +150

Does that mean Republicans will have a 53,000-vote advantage over Democrats in 2022 compared with 2020?

No.

As I previously noted, the registrations removed during biennial list maintenance are associated with people who had not voted in 2020 (or in any election since 2012). In that sense, the registrations removed during list maintenance are a lagging indicator of the erosion of the Democratic Party’s most loyal voters over the past decade.

(In case you are wondering, the Constitution and Green parties were not affected by the biennial list maintenance because neither had been officially recognized in 2012, so none of their registrants have been on the books long enough to be removed through biennial list maintenance. They are, however, about to lose all of those because they failed to meet the minimum qualifications to remain officially recognized by the State Board of Elections as parties.)

So, while biennial list maintenance is an important part of helping prevent election fraud, its impact on voting is otherwise minimal.

As Director of the Civitas Center for Public Integrity at the John Locke Foundation, Andy focuses on government compliance with the law and best practices, particularly regarding election policy and law. He researches and writes on public and election integrity,… ...

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