CLOSE

A mail-in ballot option for all voters is just one of the voting changes for Pennsylvania in the 2020 presidential election year. Wochit

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE

If you haven't voted since the first election of former President Barack Obama in 2008, you might not be able to vote in Pennsylvania this year. 

It's a use-it-or-lose-it scenario: Your voter registration can be canceled in Pennsylvania after two missed federal election cycles. 

More than 1.2 million Pennsylvania voter registrations were canceled since the 2016 presidential election, and millions more were marked inactive, according to state data. 

When voters are marked "inactive," they can still show up at the polls and vote on Election Day. But when a voter's registration is "canceled," that person might have to vote by a provisional ballot and wait for a county board of elections to decide if the vote is valid. 

More: In Gettysburg, Biden invokes Lincoln in call to heal the American soul

The registration deadline is Oct. 19 this year in Pennsylvania. Voters can check their status by going to this state website: https://www.pavoterservices.pa.gov/pages/voterregistrationstatus.aspx

In addition to the almost 376,000 voter registrations canceled last year, more than 380,000 were canceled in 2018 and more than 479,000 were canceled in 2017. 

More than 100,000 canceled registrations each year can be attributed to a voter's death or change of address.

But last year, more than 126,000 voter registrations were canceled because those voters did not respond to a mailing from their respective counties, asking if they are still at that address. In 2018, more than 105,000 were canceled because they did not respond to the mailing. And in 2017, nearly 232,000 were canceled because they did not respond to the mailing. 

It's unclear how many of them have re-registered or could be turned away at the polls this year. 

It's also unclear how many canceled registrations belonged to Democrats, Republicans and other party affiliations. The Department of State has not immediately responded to questions about that. 

Why do voters get canceled in Pa.? 

Voter registrations are canceled in Pennsylvania every year because it's the law. The state and counties are bound by the National Voter Registration Act and state election code to clean up their voting rolls. 

"We would like permanent or automatic registration, but that's not the way state law works," said Suzanne Almeida, interim executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a nonpartisan voting watchdog group.

But while there's something to be said for automatic registration, Pennsylvania's voter list maintenance is not entirely unreasonable, she said. 

"People move, people die. We need accurate poll books," Almeida said. "It's easier on poll workers." 

But Almeida said she's less concerned about voters being turned away because of canceled registrations and more concerned about voter confusion this year. 

"Pennsylvanians need to check their voter status, make a plan to vote, check on their polling places if they're voting in person or know the rules if they're voting by mail," she said. "We wish there was less of a burden on the voter, but we need to take affirmative steps to not see disenfranchisement on Election Day."

How it works

Pennsylvania law mandates that county election offices perform voter registration list maintenance at least once a year.

The Department of State, which has no authority to remove voters from the rolls, monitors county compliance, said department spokesperson Ellen Lyon.

It's really up to Pennsylvania's 67 counties.

The counties must mail notices to voters who may have moved, using information provided by the U.S. Postal Service through its National Change of Address program, she said.

More: Purple haze Pa.: Why the Keystone State is always a presidential battleground

Additionally, Pennsylvania is a member of the Electronic Registration Information Center, a consortium of 30 states and the District of Columbia. This allows Pennsylvania to cross-check its voter registration records with those of the other member states, Lyon said.

Counties must mail five-year notices to voters who have not voted or not appeared to vote in the previous five years before taking them off the rolls. They also send an additional notice after two federal election cycles are missed.

The counties use the responses to its mailings to update the voter registration rolls. If the mailing is returned confirming the voter’s information, the county updates its records accordingly. If the mailing is not returned or if it is returned as undeliverable, the county places the voter on inactive status for eventual removal, Lyon said.

Under federal and state law, no voter registration may be canceled unless:

  • The voter affirmatively requests that his or her registration be canceled.
  • The voter registration commission has proper proof the voter has died.
  • The five-year notice has been sent and the voter does not vote or otherwise communicate with county election officials through two general elections (even-numbered years).

Why it matters 

Pennsylvania has been described as a tipping-point state, the most important battleground with 20 electoral votes up for grabs in a hotly contested general election. 

President Donald J. Trump won Pennsylvania by a little more than 44,000 votes, or less than 1 percentage point. 

The president has already said during multiple campaign stops in the state that he will only lose Pennsylvania if the election is rigged, and his campaign has multiple lawsuits against the state in opposition to mail-in voting. 

Former Vice President Joe Biden has also raised concerns, saying his biggest fear is that Trump will try to steal the election. 

With concerns and claims from both parties, along with the new addition of mail-in voting, Pennsylvania is under intense scrutiny. And the tight 2016 race showed that every vote counts. 

Campaigns and advocates alike say they don't want to see voters turned away at the polls because of an inactive or canceled status. 

Michael Anderson, elections director in Lebanon County, where an 80 percent turnout is expected, said he doesn't want to see that either. 

"Even if they are not registered, they can vote here," he said. "If they present as voters, we have to issue a ballot." 

More: Trump men vs. Biden women: Which voting group in Pa. will pick the next president?

But if they are not on the voter rolls, a provisional ballot will be issued. It will be up to the county's board of elections to decide if the vote will count. 

In Lebanon County, the board approved all provisional ballots in the Pennsylvania primary. 

"I can't emphasize it enough: check your status ahead of time at votespa.com," Anderson said. "We get a lot of these inquiries every year."

Candy Woodall is a reporter for the USA Today Network. She can be reached at 717-480-1783 or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.

This coverage is only possible with support from our readers. Sign up today for a digital subscription.

CLOSE

Reporters with the USA Today Network in Pennsylvania held a virtual town hall to answer questions about voting in the election Nov. 3. York Daily Record

LINKEDINCOMMENTMORE
Read or Share this story: https://www.ydr.com/story/news/politics/elections/2020/10/14/how-your-voter-registration-can-expire-pa/3649344001/