Permanent Voter Registration

June 19, 2009

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About the Voting Rights and Election Project
About the Authors



Tens of millions of Americans - as many as one in six - change their address every year. In any five-year period, approximately 45 percent of the U.S. population moves.  All this moving poses big challenges for election administrators - and voters.

To assist states in bringing their voter registration systems into the twenty-first century, this report examines the permanent registration systems and the associated tools already in place across the country.  First we define permanent registration and describe the elements of a system of permanent registration.  Next, we lay out the technological and policy tools that facilitate permanent registration, noting the states in which these tools are already employed.  We then describe the three basic models states have adopted to achieve permanent registration using Election Day tools.  We also describe the techniques that some states employ to automatically update voters' addresses to move closer to permanent registration and achieve more accurate voter rolls on Election Day.  Because of the substantial benefits to voters and election officials, we recommend that all states establish permanent registration, and conclude with recommendations for developing effective systems of permanent registration.


Congress should extend the NVRA's limited form of permanent registration and require states to adopt programs for statewide permanent registration.

The Department of Justice should monitor state compliance with NVRA provisions concerning changes of address- and bring enforcement actions where there is non-compliance.

    Federal law should require that the U.S. Postal Service provide NCOA data to state election officials at least once every year in which there is a federal election, and should require the postal service to modify its change of address form to provide an opportunity for movers to confirm whether a change of mailing address is also intended to serve as a change of voting address.

      States should expand permanent registration protections to the approximately 25% of movers  who move across county lines and allow registered voters who move anywhere within the state to submit address corrections and cast a regular ballot from their new address on Election Day.

      States should change opt-in address updates to opt-out ones on DMV change of address forms, and should require other state agencies to similarly report address changes to election officials.

        States should automatically update voters' addresses by using the U.S. Postal Service data. 

          States should make it easier on voters to update their address information from home by developing telephonic and online tools for registration updates.  These online resources should also allow voters to confirm their registration information and look up the polling places associated with their new addresses.

          About the Voting Rights & Elections Project

          The Voting Rights and Elections Project works to expand the franchise, to ensure that every eligible American can vote, and that every vote cast is accurately recorded and counted.  The Center's staff provides top-flight legal and policy assistance on a broad range of election administration issues including voter registration systems, voting technology, voter identification, statewide voter registration list maintenance, and provisional ballots.  

          This is one in a series of white papers on Voter Registration Modernization.  The first, Voter Registration Modernization, sets forth more detailed policy arguments in favor of modernizing America's voter registration system and is available here. The second, Expanding Democracy: Voter Registration Around the World, exmaines international methods of voter registration and is available here

          About the Authors

          Adam Skaggs is counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, where he works on voting rights, election administration, and judicial independence issues. Before joining the Brennan Center, he was a litigation associate at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP, and a law clerk for Judge Stanley Marcus of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit and for Chief Judge Edward Korman of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. Mr. Skaggs holds degrees from Brooklyn Law School, Hunter College of the City University of New York, and Swarthmore College.

          Jonathan Blitzer is a Research Associate in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, and works on the Center's Voting Rights and Elections and Fair Courts projects. He holds a B.A. in English and Philosophy from Columbia University.