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A Guide to Voter Caging

Explains what the practice is and why caging is an unreliable way to clean voter rolls.

  • Justin Levitt
Published: June 29, 2007

Click here to down­load as a PDF.

Voter caging is again in the news,[1] follow­ing revel­a­tions that the prac­tice was anti­cip­ated or used in five states in 2004 and that it may have been condoned or author­ized by senior national campaign offi­cials. Voter caging is a notori­ously unre­li­able means of call­ing the voter rolls into ques­tion and can lead to unwar­ran­ted purges or chal­lenges of eligible citizens. When it is targeted at minor­ity voters (as it often is, unfor­tu­nately), it is also illegal. This guide helps to explain what voter caging is, how it has been used in the past, and why it is unre­li­able and should not be used as the sole basis for any purges of the voter rolls or chal­lenges to voter eligib­il­ity.

What Is Voter Caging?
Caging is a generic term that describes the sort­ing of returned direct-mail pieces some­times to process contri­bu­tions, and some­times to weed out unprof­it­able addresses. The term is reportedly derived from the postal cubby holes, resem­bling cages, that are used for sort­ing mail.[2] In many of its applic­a­tions, caging is both stand­ard prac­tice and benign.

Voter caging is a distinct form of caging, and much more danger­ous. Voter caging is the prac­tice of send­ing mail to addresses on the voter rolls, compil­ing a list of the mail that is returned undelivered, and using that list to purge or chal­lenge voters regis­tra­tions on the grounds that the voters on the list do not legally reside at their registered addresses.

Support­ers of voter caging defend the prac­tice as a means of prevent­ing votes cast by ineligible voters. Voter caging, however, is notori­ously unre­li­able. If it is treated (unjus­ti­fi­ably) as the sole basis for determ­in­ing that a voter is ineligible or does not live at the address at which he or she registered, it can lead to the unwar­ran­ted purge or chal­lenge of eligible voters.

Moreover, these purges or chal­lenges are seldom neut­ral. Voter caging is almost always pursued with partisan aims, and caging lists are often targeted expressly at registered members of the oppos­ing party. Moreover, the prac­tice has often been targeted at minor­ity voters, making the effects even more perni­cious. In 1986, for example, a notori­ous memor­andum unearthed in litig­a­tion, sent from one regional party polit­ical director to another, described the likely effect of a voter caging program on the upcom­ing Senate race in Louisi­ana:

I know this race is really import­ant to you. I would guess that this program will elim­in­ate at least 60–80,000 folks from the rolls. . . . If it’s a close race, which I’m assum­ing it is, this could keep the black vote down consid­er­ably.[3]

Voter caging programs are often chal­lenged in lawsuits. Two of the best known lawsuits to date have resul­ted in consent decrees against the Repub­lican National Commit­tee, prohib­it­ing racially targeted voter caging and requir­ing other ballot secur­ity programs to be pre-approved by a federal court.[4]

Moreover, Congress has recog­nized that voter caging is unre­li­able. It has, for example, strictly limited the extent to which states can use caging tech­niques to purge their voter rolls under the National Voter Regis­tra­tion Act (NVRA),[5] better known as the Motor-Voter Law.

In partic­u­lar, Congress recog­nized that voters move, and that the voter rolls may become outdated; it also recog­nized that there are many reas­ons why mail may go awry. The NVRA there­fore care­fully regu­lates the condi­tions under which a state may purge a registered voter based only on undelivered mail. Mail used for this purpose must be forward­able, with a notice to the voter to return an enclosed post­age-paid card to the relev­ant regis­trar. If the voter does not return the card, she can be flagged but she remains eligible to vote, and need only confirm her address before voting. Once the mail is sent, the voter has at least two federal elec­tions to show up, confirm her address, and vote, before a purge can take effect.

The NVRA presen­ted a sens­ible comprom­ise between the need to main­tain accur­ate rolls and the need to protect voters from unwar­ran­ted disen­fran­chise­ment due to common errors in the caging process. Unfor­tu­nately, aggress­ive caging programs often ignore the needs of voters that Congress sought to protect.

Why Is Voter Caging Unre­li­able?
Voter caging is closely related to other tech­niques that use unre­li­able data to draw undue conclu­sions concern­ing voters eligib­il­ity and then seek to use those conclu­sions to justify blunt and sweep­ing purges and chal­lenges. Based on extens­ive study of vari­ous threats to citizens voter regis­tra­tion status, the Bren­nan Center has determ­ined that voter caging lists are highly likely to include the names of many voters who are in fact eligible to vote . Several common flaws with the caging tech­nique account for eligible voters unwar­ran­ted pres­ence on voter caging lists.[6]

1. Voter rolls suffer from typos and other cler­ical errors
Mail sent to a listed regis­tra­tion address may be returned as undeliv­er­able because of a typo or other data entry error. Large govern­ment data­bases are notori­ously vulner­able to such flaws.[7] Numbers and names may be mistyped or trans­posed. Portions of addresses apart­ment numbers or house numbers or direc­tional indic­at­ors (e.g., S. Main St. or N. Main St.) may be dropped. Unusual addresses may be entered incor­rectly (e.g., 21 Main St. becomes 211–2 Main St.). One study found that as many as 26% of records in a Flor­ida social service data­base included city names that were spelled differ­ently from the same names on a master list, includ­ing more than 40 spelling vari­ations of Fort Laud­er­dale, one of the largest cities in the state.[8]

If famil­iar names like this can be so frequently misspelled, it is not surpris­ing to find vari­ous other errors in the regis­tra­tion records, any of which may prevent mail from being delivered. For example, a contro­ver­sial 2004 caging list compiled from undelivered Flor­ida mail­ings contained records for voters at 5959 Fort Caloline Road, 5959 Fort Caroline Road, and 5959 Port Caroline Road; only one of these exists, but the other two are obvi­ously typo­graph­ical errors. Simil­arly, in Milwau­kee in 2004, extens­ive alleg­a­tions of fraud instead revealed extens­ive data entry errors on the regis­tra­tion lists. In one spot-check of a list of allegedly invalid addresses, about 20% of the addresses checked were attrib­uted to data entry error.[9] Victor Moy was listed on the rolls as living at 8183 W. Thur­ston Avenue, but he actu­ally resided at number 8153.[10] 3130 S. 15th Place was incor­rectly listed as 3130 S. 15th St., and S. 68th St. was incor­rectly listed as S. 63rd St.[11] In other cases, a check of the original hand­writ­ten regis­tra­tion cards showed digits had been trans­posed by clerks. . . .[12] Still other addresses were miss­ing digits, so other­wise valid addresses showed up as non-exist­ent.[13] Other states have exper­i­enced similar prob­lems. In Ohio in 2004, for example, mail that one voter never received was incor­rectly addressed with the name of the neigh­bor­ing town.[14]

2. A voter may not be listed on the mail­box of her resid­en­tial voting address
Mail sent to a listed regis­tra­tion address may be returned as undeliv­er­able because the United States Postal Service does not know that the voter actu­ally lives at the address listed. Couples, or room­mates, or family members may list only one or two members of the resid­en­tial unit on the mail­box. Partic­u­larly when the unlis­ted members of the unit do not share the same surname as the listed member, the postal deliv­eryper­son may simply presume that the indi­vidual in ques­tion does not live at the listed address.

3. A voter may live at a non-tradi­tional resid­ence
Mail sent to a listed regis­tra­tion address may be returned as undeliv­er­able because the voter does not live at a tradi­tional address. Home­less indi­vidu­als, for example, have the right to register and vote in every state.[15] Depend­ing on the law of the state, these citizens may list a home­less shel­ter or govern­ment build­ing as their legal voting resid­ence, even if the insti­tu­tion listed will not accept their mail. Indeed, on the 2004 caging list in Flor­ida, dozens of voters were registered at either City Rescue Mission, a Chris­tian recov­ery ministry and home­less shel­ter, or the Sulzbacher Center for the Home­less. More than a thou­sand voters who had listed home­less shel­ters were simil­arly found on caging lists in Ohio.[16]

4. A voter may be tempor­ar­ily away from her perman­ent resid­ence
Mail sent to a listed regis­tra­tion address may be returned as undeliv­er­able because the voter is tempor­ar­ily away from her perman­ent resid­ence, and does not receive mail there. For example, a college student may legally reside at her parents home address, and register to vote there while she is away at school, even though she does not receive mail at her parents house. A voter may be on an exten­ded vaca­tion and have canceled or trans­ferred mail service, or may have done the same for a tempor­ary job trans­fer.[17] Indeed, in one notori­ous Louisi­ana case, a Congress­wo­man who received her mail in Wash­ing­ton rather than at her home address in her district was chal­lenged after a letter to her home was returned as undeliv­er­able.[18]

A citizen living over­seas, but registered to vote at her last domestic resid­ence, might also receive no mail at her registered address; for example, mail sent to one such voter in New Hamp­shire was returned undelivered despite the fact that the voter was eligible to vote.[19] Simil­arly, a member of the armed forces, stationed away from his voting resid­ence, could ille­git­im­ately end up on a caging list if mail is sent to that resid­en­tial address. (Dozens of the names on the 2004 caging list in Flor­ida were registered at the Naval Air Station in Jack­son­ville the third largest naval install­a­tion in the coun­try and may have had this prob­lem; other reports iden­ti­fied milit­ary members stationed out of state as those among the voters on caging lists in Ohio in 2004.)[20]

5. A voters perman­ent mail­ing address may differ from her resid­en­tial voting address
Mail sent to a listed regis­tra­tion address may be returned as undeliv­er­able because the voter receives mail else­where. When indi­vidu­als register to vote, they list their phys­ical resid­ence but not all Amer­ic­ans receive mail at their resid­en­tial address.[21] For example, voters like 2004 caging victim Raven Shaf­fer in Ohio may receive all of their mail at a post office box, but be placed on a caging list when mail is instead addressed to their homes.[22]

6. Mail may not be prop­erly delivered
Some­times, of course, mail sent to a listed regis­tra­tion address is returned as undeliv­er­able because it was not delivered prop­erly, through no fault of the voter.[23] Mail can be lost or misrouted, caus­ing it to be returned to the sender.[24] Or in larger group resid­en­tial homes, the voting resid­ence may quite prop­erly list the street address, but mail will not be delivered without a unit number. And erratic mail prob­lems can be quite signi­fic­ant. In the 1990 census, for example, the New York Times repor­ted that [a]lthough at least 4.8 million [census] forms were found to be undeliv­er­able by the Postal Service, 1.8 million of those were later delivered by hand.[25] Moreover, stud­ies of the distri­bu­tion of census surveys and tax forms show that inef­fect­ive mail deliv­ery is more common in poor and minor­ity communit­ies.[26]

7. A voters street name may have changed
Mail sent to a listed regis­tra­tion address may be returned as undeliv­er­able because the street name may have changed since the voter registered, even though the voter remains in the same resid­ence. In Milwau­kee in 2006, for example, when street addresses were checked against a postal service address program, city offi­cials review­ing the list of discrep­an­cies found that some addresses were flagged because of a change to the street name itself.[27] The same appar­ently happened to some chal­lenged voters in Louisi­ana in 1986.[28]

8. A voter may refuse to accept certain mail
Mail sent to a listed regis­tra­tion address may be returned as undeliv­er­able because the voter refuses to accept the piece of mail in ques­tion. There is no require­ment that an indi­vidual accept a piece of mail offered for deliv­ery, rather than send­ing it back with the deliv­eryper­son. Cath­er­ine Herold of Ohio, for example, repor­ted that she refused to accept deliv­ery of a partisan mail­ing which was returned undelivered and then used as purpor­ted evid­ence of her allegedly invalid regis­tra­tion.[29]

9. A voter may have moved perman­ently, but never­the­less remains eligible to vote
Mail sent to a listed regis­tra­tion address may be returned as undeliv­er­able because the voter has moved but remains wholly eligible to vote without re-regis­tra­tion.[30] Each state has differ­ent rules determ­in­ing when a voter who has moved must inform elec­tion offi­cials of her new address. At a minimum, however, federal law provides that if a voter has moved within the same area covered by a given polling place if, for example, a voter moves from one apart­ment to another within the same apart­ment complex, as a 2000 Oregon voter did[31] she may legit­im­ately vote at that polling place even if she has not yet noti­fied a regis­trar of her move.[32] Simil­arly, a voter who has moved within the same regis­trars juris­dic­tion and congres­sional district may return to vote at her former polling place without re-regis­ter­ing.[33] Espe­cially in urban areas where there is high mobil­ity within a partic­u­lar neigh­bor­hood, undeliv­er­able mail may simply reflect the recent move of a voter who remains fully eligible to vote.

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ENDNOTES

1 Dahlia Lith­wick, Raging Caging, SLATE, May 31, 2007, http://slate.com/id/2167284.
2 Paul Kiel, TPMMuck­raker.com, Cage Match: Did Griffin Try to Disen­fran­chise African-Amer­ican Voters in 2004?, http://www.tpmmuck­raker.com/archives/003523.php (June 26, 2007, 11:21 EDT).
3 Thomas B. Edsall, Ballot Secur­ity Effects Calcu­lated, WASH. POST, Oct. 24, 1986, at A1; Martin Tolchin, G.O.P. Memo Tells of Black Vote Cut, N.Y. TIMES, Oct. 25, 1986, at 17.
4 Demo­cratic National Commit­tee v. Repub­lican National Commit­tee, Civil Action No. 81–3876 (D.N.J. Nov. 1, 1982) (consent order); Demo­cratic National Commit­tee v. Repub­lican National Commit­tee, Civil Action No. 86–3972 (D.N.J. July 27, 1987) (settle­ment stip­u­la­tion and order of dismissal); United States v. Repub­lican Party of North Caro­lina, Civil Action No. 92–161-CIO-5F (E.D.N.C. Feb. 27, 1992).
5 National Voter Regis­tra­tion Act of 1993, PUB L. NO. 103–31 (May 20, 1993).
6 See also Domestic Mail Manual 507, avail­able at http://pe.usps.gov/text/dmm300/507.htm (list­ing reas­ons why mail may be undeliv­er­able).
7 ASSO­CI­ATION FOR COMPUT­ING MACHINERY, STATEWIDE DATA­BASES OF REGISTERED VOTERS 21 (Feb. 2006), avail­able at http://www.acm.org/usacm/PDF/VRD_report.pdf.
8 NANCY COLE & ELLIE LEE, ABT ASSOCS., INC., FEAS­IB­IL­ITY AND ACCUR­ACY OF RECORD LINK­AGE TO ESTIM­ATE MULTIPLE PROGRAM PARTI­CIP­A­TION, VOL. III, RESULTS OF RECORD LINK­AGE 20 (Econ. Research Serv., Elec. Publns from the Food Assist­ance & Nutri­tion Research Program, 2004).
9 Greg J. Borowski, Over 1,200 Voters Addresses Found Invalid, MILWAU­KEE J. SENTINEL, Jan. 25, 2005; Bren­nan Center for Justice, Wiscon­sin 2004, http://www.truth­about­fraud.org/case_stud­ies_by_state/wiscon­sin_2004.html.
10 Greg J. Borowski, GOP Fails To Get 5,619 Names Removed From Voting Lists, MILWAU­KEE J. SENTINEL, Oct. 29, 2004, at 1.
11 Greg Borowski, GOP Demands IDs of 37,000 in City, MILWAU­KEE J. SENTINEL, Oct. 30, 2004.
12 Id.; see also Borowski, supra note 9.
13 Greg J. Borowski & Steven Walters, Vote Inquiry Sharpens Focus, MILWAU­KEE J. SENTINEL, Oct. 30, 2004, at 1.
14 Bill Sloat, Judge Blocks Voter Eligib­il­ity Hear­ings, CLEV­E­LAND PLAIN DEALER, Oct. 28, 2004, at A1; Miller v. Black­well, Case No. 1:04CV735 (S.D. Ohio, Oct. 27, 2004) (declar­a­tion of Mindi Haddix).
15 NATL COALI­TION FOR THE HOME­LESS, STATE-BY-STATE CHART OF HOME­LESS PEOPLES VOTING RIGHTS, http://www.nation­al­home­less.org/getin­volved/projects/vote/chart.pdf; cf. SECY OF STATE OF MO., MANDATE FOR REFORM: ELEC­TION TURMOIL IN ST. LOUIS, NOVEM­BER 7, 2007 27 (2001), avail­able at http://bond.senate.gov/mandate.pdf.
16 Sandy Theis, Fraud-busters Busted, CLEV­E­LAND PLAIN DEALER, Oct. 31, 2004, at H1; Miller v. Black­well, Case No. 1:04CV735 (S.D. Ohio, Oct. 27, 2004) (declar­a­tion of Rick Taylor).
17 Steve Suo, Some Inact­ive Voters Arent, THE OREGO­NIAN, Aug. 27, 2000, at C1.
18 Jon Margolis, GOP Sued Over Voters Tactic, CHI. TRIBUNE, Oct. 8, 1986, at C9.
19 Memor­andum from Bud Fitch, Deputy Atty Gen., N.H. Dept of Justice, to Robert Boyce, Chair­man, N.H. Sen. Internal Aff. Comm., et al. 3 (Apr. 6, 2006), avail­able at http://doj.nh.gov/public­a­tions/ nreleases/pdf/040606wrong­ful_voting.pdf.
20 Robert Vitale, GOP Misfiled Some Voter Chal­lenges, Board Says, COLUM­BUS DISPATCH, Oct. 24, 2004, at 1A; Theis, supra note 16.
21 Memor­andum from Bud Fitch, supra note 19.
22 Vitale, supra note 20; Theis, supra note 16.
23 Steve Suo, supra note 17; More Mail Undelivered, FT. LAUD­ER­DALE SUN-SENTINEL, Apr. 16, 1994, at 3A; CHAND­LER DAVID­SON ET AL., REPUB­LICAN BALLOT SECUR­ITY PROGRAMS: VOTE PROTEC­TION OR MINOR­ITY VOTE SUPPRES­SIONOR BOTH? 18 (2004), avail­able at http://www.votelaw.com/blog/ blog­docs/GOP_Ballot_Secur­ity_Programs.pdf.
24 See, e.g., James Barron, Sign of Approval, But Will It Bring Mail?, N.Y. TIMES, Aug. 2, 2004, at B1.
25 Feli­city Barrin­ger, Cities Seek Bushs Back­ing to Avert Census Crisis, N.Y. TIMES, Apr. 18, 1990, at A17.
26 See Dayne L. Cunning­ham, Who Are To Be the Elect­ors? A Reflec­tion on the History of Voter Regis­tra­tion in the United States, 9 YALE L. & POLY REV. 370, 393–94 & nn.134–35 (1991).
27 Larry Sand­ler & Greg J. Borowski, Parties Spar Over City Voter Lists, MILWAU­KEE J. SENTINEL, Oct. 27, 2006, at B1; see also Tom Kertscher, Land­lord Sees a Lot in a Name, MILWAU­KEE J. SENTINEL, June 8, 2004.
28 Thomas M. Burton, Demo­crats Sue Over GOP Bid to Mail Down the Vote, CHI. TRIBUNE, Sept. 25, 1986, at C1.
29 John Riley, Complic­a­tions, Chal­lenges Abound, N.Y. NEWS­DAY, Oct. 31, 2004, at A37; Theis, supra note 16.
30 J. Gerald Hebert, Campaign Legal Center Blog, Inside the Vote Cage: Griffin, Good­ling and McNulty (No, Not Another Lawfirm), http://www.clcb­log.org/blog_item-138.html (June 20, 2007).
31 Steve Suo, supra note 17.
32 42 U.S.C.  1973gg-6(e)(1).
33 42 U.S.C.  1973gg-6(e)(2)(A)(i).