This article is made possible by Spotlight PA‘s collaboration with Votebeat, a non-partisan news organization reporting on local electoral administration and voting. This article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s Republication Policy.
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s electoral rolls have been a frequent target of conservative politicians who believe the debunked narrative that the 2020 election was stolen.
Last fall, Senate Republicans conducted a “forensic review” of the electoral roll to verify voters’ identities. And Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano has pledged to roll back voter rolls and require all Pennsylvanians to reregister to vote in future elections — despite federal law prohibiting it.
“The most important thing is [if elected], I am allowed to appoint the foreign minister, and this foreign minister will clean up the electoral laws,” Mastriano said. “We will indeed roll back the registry. You have to register again. We’ll start again from the beginning. … I’ve seen better elections in Afghanistan than in Pennsylvania.”
After the primary, Mastriano, a state senator, told the conservative news organization Newsmax why he thought his registration needed to be reset, despite not providing any evidence.
“There’s still a lot of dead people on the lists and what do you have, and there are also phantom voters that we found at various addresses,” he said. “So we’re going to take this very seriously and we’re going to be really tough. Basically, we have about a year to fix this before the 2024 presidential election.”
But election officials say the state’s extensive processes and tools actually keep Pennsylvania’s lists accurate and well-maintained.
State and county officials removed 84,577 deceased voters and 180,918 out-of-state relocations from voter rolls in 2020, the latest year for which figures are available, according to the State Department’s annual voter registration report.
One of the reasons electoral officials are confident in the accuracy of Commonwealth electoral registers is that the State Department does not maintain them alone.
In 2016, Pennsylvania became a member of the Electronic Registration Information Center. Established by seven founding states and the Pew Charitable Trusts, ERIC is now independent and funded and regulated by its 31 member states and the District of Columbia.
The idea behind ERIC was to provide something that might approach a national voter database, said Marian Schneider, who was then assistant secretary of state and is now the ACLU’s senior adviser on voting rights policy.
“The concept was, since we don’t have a national voter registration database, let’s create an algorithm and use data from states to compare states and give more up-to-date information about voters, e.g. like whether they’ve moved, or whether they’ve died or not,” she said. “It’s basically a consortium of members who pay dues, and the benefit of joining is that there are a lot of tools to clean up the electoral rolls.”
Every 60 days, the Commonwealth sends voter registration and motor vehicle department data – including driver’s license numbers, social security numbers and dates of birth – to ERIC through a secure portal, said Ellen Lyon, a spokeswoman for the State Department.
Then, each May, ERIC sends the State Department reports from Pennsylvania voters who appear to have relocated because they submitted a change of address form to the US Postal Service or because they appeared on another member state’s DMV records or electoral rolls.
Suppose a Pennsylvania voter moves to Ohio – also a member of ERIC – and gets a new driver’s license and registers there to vote without canceling his registration in Pennsylvania. ERIC would detect this change as it receives data from Ohio and would alert Pennsylvania that the voter may have changed residency.
Even if a voter from Pennsylvania moves to a state that is not a member of the ERIC, such as New Jersey or New York, the program would use the national change of address database to detect that move.
When counties receive these voter rolls, they begin the voter removal process by sending a non-forwardable notice to the voter’s last address. If the voter does not respond to the notification within 30 days, another notification will be sent. If there is no response to this notice and the voter does not come to their polling station to vote in the next federal election, the county will remove the voter from the lists in accordance with state law.
Then there’s another layer of detection that looks for voters who no longer live in Pennsylvania. Any time a voter fails to cast a ballot for two consecutive federal election cycles, the voter is marked as inactive in the Commonwealth’s Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors (SURE) system, which begins processing what is known as a five-year notice period.
Also as part of this process, counties send a notice to the voter’s last address to confirm their residency and give them 30 days to respond. If the voter does not register by the day after the second Bundestag election, they will be removed from the voters’ register.
Voters who have been marked as inactive but wish to remain on the lists must either respond to any of the notices by signing and returning them in the postage-paid envelope provided, or by signing an affidavit at their polling station.
The only ERIC reports that the Commonwealth cannot currently use to clean up electoral rolls are the reports of deceased voters. Under Title 25 of the Pennsylvania Electoral Code, the only records the State Department can use to verify that a voter has died are Department of Health and Human Services records, newspaper obituaries, and letters from a county’s registry of wills. A bill allowing the state to use ERIC’s death certificates was introduced in April by Rep. Seth Grove, a Republican. HB 2507 passed unanimously through the State House and awaits action in the State Senate.
All 67 wards are required to maintain their electoral rolls annually to ensure their accuracy, Lyon said.
When this maintenance is performed varies from county to county. For example, Bucks County conducts its electoral roll after each primary, said James O’Malley, a spokesman for the Bucks County Commissioners.
Philadelphia and Allegheny, the two largest counties in the Commonwealth, continually update voter rolls as information such as obituaries or changes of address comes in, officials said.
Aside from the false claims underlying Mastriano’s plan to roll back the registry, another flaw in his promise is that it probably wouldn’t survive a court challenge, Schneider said.
When the National Voter Registration Act, or “Motor Voter” Act, was passed in 1993, it included, among other things, the provisions requiring voters to be notified of their de-listing, she said. Pursuant to Title 25 of the Pennsylvania Elections Act, you cannot be required to re-register if you reside at the same address at which you registered to vote.
Mastriano has not publicly explained how his plan to require everyone to re-register would be legal under federal and state law, and his campaign did not respond to a request for details from Votebeat and Spotlight PA.
Pennsylvanians can register for the November election or update their registration for the November election online or through their county Elections Board. The deadline for registering to vote in Pennsylvania is October 24.
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