Vanishing Voters

Why Registered Voters Drop Off the Rolls

A new survey of state laws and election officials shows that, on the eve of the 2008 general election, nineteen states do not have laws, regulations or systems in place to properly implement a federally mandated 90-day pre-Election Day ban on systemic voter list purges. The survey, Vanishing Voters, was conducted during the summer of 2008 by the U.S. PIRG Education Fund.


In 1993, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). Its primary purpose was to open up the voter registration process and enhance democratic participation. The law had several aims, but among them was protecting Americans from being carelessly or purposefully excluded from voting by being improperly dropped from voting rolls.

Specifically, the NVRA established two clear and simple directives regarding the maintenance of voter rolls:

1. Election administrators may systematically remove ineligible voters from voter rolls at any time except within 90 days of a federal election.

2. Election administrators must notify voters that they will be dropped from the rolls if the administrators believe that the voters have moved to another precinct.

Fifteen years after enactment of the NVRA, however, many states continue to appear unaware of the federal rules regarding voter roll purges. A survey of state laws and election officials shows that, on the eve of the 2008 general election, many voters across the country do not appear to enjoy the important voter protection provisions afforded by the NVRA.

Many states seem unaware of the federal rules against systematic voter list maintenance within 90 days of a federal election as evidenced by the following three findings:

1. Seventeen states do not have laws, regulations or systems in place to properly implement the NVRA’s 90-day ban on voter list maintenance. There is no apparent pattern to the states that lack  these  protections,  and  they cross both political and geographic  boundaries.

2. Eight states claim that there is no deadline beyond which voters cannot be systematically dropped from the rolls, a direct contradiction of the terms of the NVRA.

3. Four states have their own deadlines written into state law — all of which are less than the federally mandated 90 days.

In addition, we found that nine states do not have the proper systems in place for notifying voters who have been removed from the rolls if they are believed to have moved out of the precinct.



1. States should assess their compliance with the NVRA and immediately take steps to ensure they are following federal law.

2. Each state’s Secretary of State or chief election administrator should send a letter to election officers and local officials explaining and clarifying the rules.

3. The Department of Justice must enforce the NVRA, including the 90-window and the notification requirements.

4. States should properly train state and local employees who are responsible for managing voter rolls in order to reduce the likelihood of improper purging.  

5. States should be prohibited from purging a voter from the rolls unless his or her name, address, sex, and phone number match the person whom should be removed.

6. Any state with a problem maintaining the rolls should be required to conduct an internal investigation.

7. Congress should expand the NVRA notification rule so that all voters who are dropped from the rolls are notified rather than just those who are  being  dropped because they have moved.

8. States should post purged names on a public forum that is free to access, such as the Internet.

There are numerous ways in which states are in non-compliance with NVRA rules and, in so doing, jeopardizing the right of eligible voters to vote. By adopting these recommendations, government can promote the democratic process and help ensure that citizens who are entitled to vote have the opportunity to do so.