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How Pennsylvania keeps its voter rolls clean and updated

Pennsylvania’s voter rolls have been a frequent target of conservative politicians who believe the disproven narrative that the 2020 election was stolen. TOM GRALISH / Philadelphia Inquirer

This article is made possible through Spotlight PA’s collaboration with Votebeat, a nonpartisan news organization covering local election administration and voting. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s voter rolls have been a frequent target of conservative politicians who believe the disproven narrative that the 2020 election was stolen.

Last fall, state Senate Republicans pursued a “forensic audit” of the voter roll to verify voters’ identities. And Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano has pledged to reset the voter rolls and require all Pennsylvanians to re-register in order to cast a ballot in future elections — although federal law prohibits this.

“The most important thing is [if elected], I get to appoint the secretary of state and that secretary of state is going to clean up the election laws,” Mastriano said. “We’re going to reset, in fact, registration. You’re going to have to re-register. We’re going to start all over again. … I saw better elections in Afghanistan than I saw in Pennsylvania.”

After the primary, Mastriano, a state senator, told the conservative news organization Newsmax why he thought his registration reset was needed, though he didn’t provide evidence.

“There’s still a lot of dead on the rolls, and what have you, and there’s ghost phantom voters that we found, as well, at various addresses,” he said. “So we’re going to take that very seriously and move really hard. Basically we have about a year to get that right before the 2024 presidential election.”

But election officials say the state’s extensive processes and tools actually keep Pennsylvania’s rolls accurate and well-maintained.

State and county officials removed 84,577 deceased voters and 180,918 out-of-state movers from the voter rolls in 2020, the latest year for which numbers are available, according to the Department of State’s annual voter registration report.

One of the reasons why election officials are confident in the accuracy of the commonwealth’s voting rolls is because the Department of State isn’t maintaining them alone.

In 2016, Pennsylvania became a member of the Electronic Registration Information Center. ERIC, which was created by seven founding states and the Pew Charitable Trusts, is now independent and is funded and overseen by its 31 member states and the District of Columbia.

The idea behind ERIC was to provide something that could approximate a national voter database, said Marian Schneider, who was a deputy secretary of state at the time and now is the senior voting rights policy counsel for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

“The concept was, since we don’t have a national voter registration database, let’s make an algorithm and use data from the states to compare and give member states more up-to-date information about voters, like if they’ve moved, or whether they’ve died or not,” she said. “It is basically a consortium of members that pay dues and the benefit of joining is that there are a lot of tools to clean up the voter rolls.”

Every 60 days, the commonwealth transmits voter registration and Division of Motor Vehicles data — which includes driver’s license numbers, Social Security numbers, and dates of birth — to ERIC using a secure portal, said Ellen Lyon, a spokesperson for the Department of State.

Then every May, ERIC sends the Department of State reports of Pennsylvania voters who seem to have moved, because they filed a change-of-address form with the U.S. Postal Service or because they have popped up in another member state’s DMV records or voter roll.

Say a Pennsylvania voter moves to Ohio — also a member of ERIC — and gets a new driver’s license and registers to vote there without canceling their Pennsylvania registration. ERIC would detect that change because it receives data from Ohio, and would alert Pennsylvania that the voter may have changed residency.

Even if a Pennsylvania voter moves to a state that’s not a member of ERIC, like New Jersey or New York, the program would detect that move through the National Change of Address database.

When counties receive these lists of voters, they begin a process to remove the voter by sending a non-forwardable notice to the voter’s most recent address. If the voter doesn’t respond to the notice within 30 days, another notice is sent. If that notice isn’t responded to, and the voter doesn’t come to their polling place to vote in the next federal election, the county removes the voter from the rolls, according to state statute.

Then there is another layer of detection that looks for voters who no longer live in Pennsylvania. Any time a voter fails to cast a ballot for two consecutive federal election cycles, the voter is marked inactive in the commonwealth’s Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors (SURE) system, which begins to process what’s called a five-year notice.

Under this process as well, the counties send a notice to the voter’s most recent address seeking to confirm their residency, giving 30 days to respond. If the voter doesn’t respond by the day after the second federal election after that, the voter is removed from the rolls.

Voters who have been marked inactive but want to stay on the rolls must either respond to one of the notices by signing it and sending it back in the postage paid return envelope provided, or by signing an affidavit at their polling place.

The only ERIC reports that the commonwealth can’t use to clean the voter rolls right now are the deceased voter reports. Under Title 25 of Pennsylvania’s Election Code, the only records the Department of State can use to verify that a voter is deceased are records from the Department of Health, newspaper obituaries, and letters from a county’s Register of Wills. A bill to allow the state to use ERIC’s death records was introduced by Rep. Seth Grove, a Republican, in April. HB 2507 passed unanimously through the state House and awaits action in the state Senate.

All 67 counties are required to do annual maintenance of their voter rolls to ensure their accuracy, Lyon said.

When that maintenance is done varies from county to county. For example, Bucks County does its voter roll maintenance after each primary election, said James O’Malley, a spokesperson for the Bucks County Commissioners.

Philadelphia and Allegheny, the commonwealth’s two biggest counties, do voter roll maintenance on a rolling basis, as information such as death notices or changes of address are received, officials said.

Beside the false claims underlying Mastriano’s registration-reset plan, another flaw in his pledge is that it probably wouldn’t survive court challenges, Schneider said.

When the National Voter Registration Act, or “Motor Voter” law, was passed in 1993, among the things it included were the provisions that required that voters be notified of their removal from the rolls, she said. Under Title 25 of Pennsylvania’s election law, if you live at the same address that you used to register to vote, you can’t be required to register again.

Mastriano has not publicly explained how his plan to require everyone to re-register would be legal under federal and state law, and his campaign did not respond to a request for details from Votebeat and Spotlight PA.

Pennsylvanians can register to vote or update their registration for the November election online or by going to their county board of elections. The deadline to register to vote in Pennsylvania is Oct. 24.

WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.

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