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Why Are So Many People Registered to Vote in Multiple States?

It’s not just Trump’s administration: Thanks to voting rights protections and federalism, many Americans are registered in more than one state—whether they know it or not.

By Jack Denton


(Photo: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AFP/Getty Images)

With a fiery tweet Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump reignited his crusade against the specter of voter fraud he believes to be haunting our electoral system. Promising a “major investigation into VOTER FRAUD,” Trump focused his ire on those who are registered to vote in multiple states.

Beyond the wastefulness of an investigation into a non-issue—researchshowsthatvoterfraudalmostneveroccurs—Trump’s focus on double registration became especially curious after reporters discovered that members of his administration and family are registered to vote in two states. First, a reporter at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune uncovered that Stephen Bannon, senior adviser to the president, was registered to vote in both Florida and New York.

Steven Mnuchin, Trump’s nominee for secretary of the treasury; White House advisor (and Trump’s son-in-law) Jared Kushner; and First Daughter Tiffany Trump were also all registered to vote in two states, as CNN, the Washington Post, and Heatstreet reported, respectively.

The national press took justifiable pleasure in pointing out the hypocrisy of Trump’s investigation plans, but confusion about duplicate registrations is understandable. While voting in multiple jurisdictions or precincts in the same election is illegal, being registered in multiple states is not. In fact, across the United States, having multiple voter registrations is fairly common. A 2012 study conducted by the Pew Center found that at least 2.75 million people were registered to vote in more than one state, likely the result of moving from one state to another. But why do these outdated registrations persist when someone moves to a new state and becomes registered to vote there?

Bannon reportedly sent a letter to the Sarasota County elections supervisor in November, asking to be removed from the state’s voter rolls, but was not removed until his registration status became a national media story this week. As Bannon’s saga illustrates, voting rights protections and the non-coordination of state elections authorities conspire to make it difficult to ensure that a person is registered in only one state following a move across state lines.

A 2012 study conducted by the Pew Center found that at least 2.75 million people were registered to vote in more than one state.

This is partly because 1993’s National Voter Registration Act, which codified many of the practices of voter roll maintenance, left the practice almost entirely up to the states. The Help America Vote Act, passed in 2002 in an attempt to fix some of the voting problems (both real and imagined) of the 2000 election, required states to keep centralized voter registration databases, but did not mandate inter-state sharing. The federal government still does not maintain any national voter registration database, and few states cross-reference their voter rolls to avoid duplication. Political consulting firms (and hackers) may be the only ones to aggregate nationwide voter registration data.

The NVRA also mandates that states remove people who have died or moved from their voter rolls. The legislation provided nebulous guidelines for this “voter purge” process, however, and subsequentupdates to the guidelines have not clarified much. A 2005 Election Assistance Commission report recommended that states “coordinate with relevant federal databases, such as the U.S. Postal Service National Change of Address and Social Security Death Index databases,” when maintaining voter rolls, and the federal government’s voting help website claims that, “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.”

However, it appears that most states carry out neither of these practices consistently, if at all. Voter purge processes are largely under the purview of local and state election boards, whose methods vary widely. In 2016, for example, the New York City Board of Elections came under fire after over more than 117,000 voters were purged from Brooklyn’s rolls without notice.

Voter purges often disproportionately affect minorities and the young; the roll maintenance process is, as described by the Brennan Center, “shrouded in secrecy, prone to error, and vulnerable to manipulation.”As WNYC reported, for example, the Brooklyn purge removed Hispanic voters at a much higher rate than voters in other demographic groups. Political parties sometimes engage in “voter caging,” sending mail to a targeted groups of constituents, and using the letters returned as undeliverable to try to disenfranchise voters who are likely to be unfavorable to their candidate or party. In 2008, lawsuits in Michigan and Colorado ruled that massive voter caging efforts were a violation of the NVRA requirements.

Implemented carefully, a more explicit and nationally unified system of voter registration and purge guidelines could help prevent both voter suppression and duplicate registrations. However, many of the duplicate registrations are a necessary consequence of regulations that provide safeguards against voter suppression. And, inarguably, there’s no reason for Trump to fret over duplicate registrations anywhere, whether by members of his administration, his family, or Hillary Clinton voters in New York and California.