NDSU sociology researcher receives grant to study the impact of routine voter roll maintenance

NDSU assistant professor of sociology Dane Mataic has received two grants in collaboration with three researchers from Pennsylvania State University to study how the process of routine voter roll maintenance impacts individual voters. The first, a $283,053 collaborative grant from the National Science Foundation and the second, a $97,000 grant from the Russell Sage will result in a public database of voter maintenance policies for every state as well as an assessment of voter registration inequality.

The process of purging voter rolls through routine voter maintenance (RVM) includes rationale such as criminal convictions, death, residency changes and infrequent voting. However, these routine administrative processes have removed large numbers of registered voters from state voter rolls—Estimates suggest that 16 million people have been impacted by these policies from 2014 to 2016 alone—which raises the question of whether certain groups are disproportionately impacted by the process.

Mataic notes that while the process of cleaning voter rolls is necessary, removing an individual’s voting rights through nefarious and inequitable practices only adds to division among groups in our country.

“Inequalities in citizen access to the vote is tied to one’s location in our highly-stratified society and differential access to the vote has been associated with voter suppression, unlawful purging of voter rolls, and strict identification requirements,” Mataic says.

Examples of this type of voter disenfranchisement are typically found in lower socio-economic groups who lack the flexibility to reregister as often as some states require. Mataic points to a number of new proposed bills, such as in Missouri, that allows the Secretary of State to purge voter rolls. Although North Dakota doesn’t have voter registration, the state does have similar voter requirements, such as the one which required residents to show an identification with a physical street address, which could have resulted in hardship for Native American communities that typically used post office boxes instead for their mailing addresses.

Given these and other differences found from state to state, the impact of the routine maintenance of voter rolls as mandated by Congress as part of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act has not been extensively studied. Mataic hopes the project will help researchers better understand the relationship between government policy and individual citizens.

Mataic collaborated on a pilot study that examining the Pennsylvania voter roll maintenance of individuals between 2017-2019. The researchers discovered that a group negatively impacted by condensed time for voter purges were individuals younger than 30, who as a group tended to move more often. Mataic notes that it is possible that mailed notices to re-register to vote were not always received prior to deadlines for their names to be purged from the roll and thus they may find themselves unable to vote.

In addition to how voter roll purges impact certain groups, the research team also hopes to learn if there are state variations to the purge processes; if political party preferences of state and county-level voter maintenance officials are related to purging; and if county-level socioeconomic differences and spatial patterns (such as neighborhood and school segregation) are related to purging. The group will also look at how social disruptions related to COVID-19 affected differential rates of purging. At the completion of the research, the group will have a comprehensive database that will be available to other researchers to use as a tool in exploring the intricacies of voting roll maintenance.

“Currently, states have complete control over their voting rolls,” said Mataic. “A comprehensive database of all states doesn’t exist as individual states don’t combine their rolls. In situations as simple as someone moving to a different state, their voting status and records will not follow them. This puts the onus on the individual to complete the voting registration process in the new location. This is a process that can create inequality among certain groups.”

Mataic is co-pi on the study with Pennsylvania State University researchers Lee Ann Banaszak (department head and professor of political science and women’s, gender, and sexuality studies), Christopher Fowler (associate professor of geography), and John McCarthy (distinguished professor of sociology). Mataic will enlist one undergraduate researcher and a graduate assistant at NDSU to also work on the project.

“The Reproduction of Social Inequality through Routine Voter Maintenance” is supported by the Russell Sage Foundation. One of the oldest American foundations, the Russell Sage Foundation was established in 1907 for the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States. The foundation dedicates itself to strengthening the methods, data, and theoretical core of the social sciences as a means of diagnosing social problems and improving social policies. More information available at https://www.russellsage.org/awarded-project/reproduction-social-inequality-through-routine-voter-maintenance

“Collaborative Research: Routine Maintenance of Registration Lists” (award abstract # 2049258) is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The NSF is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense." More information is available at https://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/showAward?AWD_ID=2049258

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