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DURHAM, NC (March 20, 2024) — Voting rights advocates released a memorandum this week addressing the challenges and implications surrounding the use of mail returned as undeliverable in voter list maintenance. The memo is intended to guide advocates and election officials in improving voter registration and list maintenance practices to prevent the erroneous disenfranchisement of eligible voters.

The “Mail Returned as Undeliverable in List Maintenance” memo focuses on the unreliability of returned postal mail as an indicator of voter residency. Specifically, the document provides an overview of legal frameworks around list maintenance and returned mail, shares insights on historical practices, identifies problems, and offers recommendations for elections officials amidst escalating concerns over the accuracy and fairness of list maintenance practices across the nation.

The memo highlights the potential misuse of returned mail as an indicator of a voter’s residency. USPS can return mail to the sender as “undeliverable” for a variety of reasons, only some of which actually indicate that the voter may have moved. As just one example, voters who are temporarily away from their permanent residence (for sickness, school, work, or otherwise) may have mail go unclaimed—and thus undeliverable—even if they have not permanently moved. Technical issues with postage and the handling of mail pieces can similarly lead to mail that is undeliverable through no fault of the voter.

Accurate information about returned mail is particularly important as election officials, public officials, and activists are increasingly promoting a variety of aggressive list maintenance tactics that threaten to—whether intentionally or inadvertently—disenfranchise eligible voters. These problems can impact voters across the country, including in North Carolina, where civil rights organizations have sounded the alarm over new ballot restrictions in Senate Bill 747 that risk disenfranchising same day registrants due to mail that goes undelivered for any reason, including accident or negligence.

Disinformation and misinformation have already impacted list maintenance efforts across the country. For example, the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC—a non-profit state membership organization that allows member states to securely share voter registration lists with each other and use this information to update voter rolls—recently became the subject of a series of conspiracy theories rooted in election denialism. As of August 2023, nine states had announced their withdrawal from ERIC, with other states on the verge of leaving or blocking entry into the organization.

Election officials play a crucial role in safeguarding the integrity of our electoral process by diligently overseeing list maintenance efforts. By taking proactive steps to ensure accurate voter rolls, they uphold the trust and confidence of the electorate, ensuring that every vote counts and every voice is heard at the ballot box.

Recommendations and best practices outlined in the memo for election officials include:

  • Foster good relationships with local USPS representatives;
  • Carefully consider which mailings need to trigger list maintenance;
  • Pay close attention to mail piece design to avoid errant handling and processing;
  • Take additional steps to confirm address quality before placing voters into inactive status or removing them from the voter registration list;
  • Be aware of the costs and inefficiencies associated with relying on returned mail;
  • Work closely with community groups and voting rights advocates to ensure transparent and accessible voter education and outreach.

Read the full memo here.

The following organizations contributed to this memo: All Voting is Local, Fair Elections Center, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Southern Coalition for Social Justice, and VoteFlare.