How I Became An Election Scofflaw
When I moved to Kentucky earlier this year, registering to vote here was high on my to-do list. It would become the fifth state where I’ve cast my ballot.
It turns out, I realized this week, I’m still registered in most of those other states, too.
No, this is not intentional. Yes, I move a lot. And perhaps, I am breaking some rules I wasn’t even aware of.
Here’s how this came about: while chatting with a coworker about a local official caught voting in Florida, I joked that I was probably registered there too. Out of curiosity, I typed my name into the online voter site for each state I’ve previously lived: Nebraska, Florida, Tennessee and Rhode Island.
I always assumed states take care of these things. So I was more than a little surprised when my name still appeared on three precinct voter rolls, even though I’m quite a few addresses and many years removed.
Think that wasn’t possible? Me neither. I found this passage on the usa.gov website about voter registration, which says, literally, that it’s not possible:
“You can’t be registered to vote in more than one place at a time,” the website noted. “When you register to vote in a new location, you’ll be asked for your previous address. Your new election office will send a cancellation form to your previous election office.”
Despite this pronouncement, I most certainly am registered to vote in more than one place. With all this talk about rigged elections and voter fraud, was I inadvertently becoming a voter registration scofflaw?
I called some state officials and experts. Did I drop the ball, or did a number of bureaucrats fail me?
The answer is a little bit of both. States have no national database to consult. Though there are two big programs for cross-state information sharing, many states remain unconnected. And voter rights laws are designed to protect voters from unfair purges.
So it’s very possible -- likely, even -- that a person who’s moved across state lines would be registered in more than one place. And it’s a common issue that persists as states balance the need to clean up their rosters with ensuring access.
It turns out that Nebraska tried to ask me nicely.
“Mid-June, you were sent a confirmation mailing notice that apparently you have not responded to yet,” said Neal Erickson, deputy secretary of state for elections.
Erickson said Nebraska participates in an interstate matching program. Kentucky is in the same program and notified them when I registered my new Louisville address.
If I had taken notice of Nebraska’s mailer, I would have seen that Erickson’s office asked me to allow them to take my name off the list at my old Omaha precinct.
Could I have showed up on Election Day and voted in Nebraska? Erickson said yes. But my name being on the list wouldn’t make it less fraudulent.
“You would have had to confirm your address,” he said, “so you would have had to lie.”
Now, I’m going to send back that postcard. But even if I don’t, the state will remove me from the roster once two federal elections have passed without word.
In Florida, where I haven’t lived in more than three years, my registration appears active. A spokeswoman there pointed me to state law, which says no voter can be removed from the rolls unless they make a written request. Technically, I made a written request: the law considers my new registrations elsewhere as a written request. But that’s only if the state’s election officials learn about it: Florida has a law on the books that prevents it from joining cross-state information sharing programs, so they didn’t get or give any intel on me.
In Tennessee, I’m registered but inactive. A spokesman there guessed that another state -- probably Nebraska, which again is part of the same cross-state information program -- updated Tennessee on my whereabouts.
I’ve been completely purged from the rolls in Rhode Island, where I haven’t voted in more than a decade. Lil’ Rhody is one of 21 states in the Electronic Registration Information Center, also known as ERIC.
The nonprofit organization checks member states’ voter rosters against other states, according to John Lindback, ERIC’s executive director. The group also monitors death records, national change of address forms, driver records and other sources -- not only for problem registrations, but also to find potential voters who aren’t registered.
You’ll be contacted, Lindback said, but not purged -- until at least two federal elections have passed without you showing up.
People like me are clogging up the voter logs, Lindback said. But generally speaking, we aren’t trying to vote more than once. We are wasting money.
“It's expensive for local governments to print ballots and send mail to people who are no longer there,” he said. “It’s a waste. The more accurate your voter registration list is, the more efficient your government is.”
Voter purges are a sore spot in Kentucky -- which I swear is the only place I will vote today.
In 2006, a judge declared that Kentucky illegally purged 8,000 voters after determining they were registered in multiple states.
Secretary of State spokesman Bradford Queen said Kentucky sends out postcards asking for updated information after learning that someone moved.
Queen noted that the onus, though, is on the voter to cancel old registrations.
“When voters register to vote in Kentucky, they do swear to vote under penalty of perjury they are not registered to vote anywhere outside Kentucky,” he said.
I tried to play it cool while I asked him if he thought I committed perjury.
He offered me some kind advice: “Just go cancel your old registration.”
Kate Howard can be reached at email@example.com and (502) 814.6546.