When Voters Move
Download for footnotes.
In the United States, 90 million eligible voters - 45 percent of the population - move every five years. When Americans register to vote, their voter registrations are linked to their residential address. This connection between a voter's registration and residence is intended to ensure reliable and accurate voter lists and that voters only vote for races and ballot questions that affect the communities in which they live. However, in America's increasingly mobile society - a society where an estimated 29 million voting-age Americans move each year - a fixed and static linkage between voter registration and a voter's residential address can prove to be complicated and confusing - and for many, ultimately disenfranchising.
There are a number of state and federal laws to protect voters who move, but these laws are far from uniform. Some states offer no more protections than those provided by federal law, while others have established systems of portable or "permanent" registration under which registered voters can move within the state and still can cast a ballot that counts on Election Day. Laws also vary depending on whether people move across state or county lines, and while state and federal laws protect some voters, they do not protect them all, leaving some movers at risk of being disenfranchised.
The diverse patchwork of laws governing voters who move means such voters are treated differently depending on where they live. Differing treatment also results from inconsistent enforcement: election officials and poll workers do not always properly implement legal protections for voters who move. The complex regime governing the rights and responsibilities of voters who move ultimately creates confusion for voters and election workers alike.
A series of three laws, the 1970 Amendments to the Voting Rights Act, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, and the Help America Vote Act of 2002, lay out the basic federal framework of protections for voters who move. Although these protections in these laws apply only to federal elections, most states have implemented them in some form in their state elections statutes.
Federal law leaves largely unprotected the voting rights of voters who move outside of their jurisdiction - usually, their county. Although the Voting Rights Act protects voters who move to a new state close to an election, the Act only lets voters cast ballots for Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidates. This has the effect of disenfranchising voters who presume that once they are registered in the state, they do not have to re-register when they move to a different address.
- States should adopt a system of portable or permanent registration
- States should enhance coordination between election officials and DMVs
- States should enhance coordination between election officials and voter registration agencies and public assistance agencies
- States should allow voters to correct or update their addresses online
- States should give voters proof of their attempt to register and/or update at state agencies and accept that proof on Election Day if the transaction has not been processed
- States should better inform voters about state requirements and protections for voters who move
- States should better train poll workers to respond to the issues facing movers
- States should maintain a record of voters who have been removed from the state's list of eligible voters on the basis of a change of address
- States should permit Election Day corrections
- States should consider allowing the counting of provisional ballots that include partial ballots
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.
About the Author
Myrna Pérez is Senior Counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. Ms. Pérez works on a variety of voting rights related issues, including redistricting, voter registration list maintenance, and access to the ballot box. Prior to joining the Center, Ms. Pérez was the Civil Rights Fellow at Relman & Dane, a civil rights law firm in Washington, DC. A graduate of Columbia Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Ms. Pérez clerked for the Honorable Anita B. Brody of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and for the Honorable Julio M. Fuentes of the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. Ms. Pérez is the author of Voter Purges, a Brennan Center publication.