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How North Dakota Administers Elections Without Voter Registration

Since 1951, North Dakota has stood alone as the only state without formal voter registration. There have been multiple legislative efforts to reinstate voter registration, but all have failed as the majority of governors, secretaries of state, and other policymakers believe voter registration to be costly and restrictive for the state’s election ecosystem. North Dakota serves as proof that states can maintain efficient, low-barrier, and secure voter rolls without formal voter registration. Its system—while unique—can be replicated in other states through policies like same-day and automatic voter registration.

Without a requirement for registration, the process of voting in North Dakota is straightforward. Qualified returning electors show up at their precinct, present a valid form of identification containing their name, current residential address, and date of birth, and then have their name and address verified using the precinct poll book generated from the permanent central voter file. In a similar process, new voters present their identification to a clerk, who then adds the voter’s information to the poll book. If a voter’s identification does not contain all the required components, they have the option to present supplementary documentation such as a utility bill or paycheck. In cases where voters do not have this documentation with them, they are allowed to fill out a provisional ballot on the condition that they present proper identification before canvassing.

The central voter file is North Dakota’s primary safeguard in maintaining secure elections. Created in 2008 in collaboration with the North Dakota Department of Transportation (NDDOT), the file is kept up to date via regular reports from NDDOT, the state health officer, the state court administrator, and the director of the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The large number of agencies feeding data into the voter file enables North Dakota to maintain a comprehensive voter list without a duty on voters to complete registration. In essence, the state is an early pioneer of what is now referred to as automatic voter registration.

The voter file is maintained by county auditors and the secretary of state to prevent and identify any attempts at fraud, ensure accuracy of active and inactive voter lists, and produce critical materials like precinct poll books and reports. The secretary of state is also charged with auditing the central voter file after each election to ensure there was no double voting or out-of-jurisdiction voting. To ensure transparency and uphold the integrity of elections, poll books are open records—meaning anyone can request an active voter list at any time—and voter lists can legally be generated and shared with other states.

This approach to voting has worked well in the past because of North Dakota’s primarily rural population, but some precincts are growing rapidly as residents move into cities like Fargo and Bismarck, making it difficult for election boards to determine who is a qualified elector. When local officials don’t know how many voters to expect, it becomes challenging to know how many resources to allocate to which voting sites (for example, how many paper ballots to provide or poll workers to send). High-traffic precincts in Cass County (Fargo) experienced ballot shortages and long lines in the 2022 midterms, but the extent to which population shifts affect voting in the state writ large is up to how well local offices can adapt. Cass County election officials serve as confirmation that quick adaptation is possible, having already expanded early voting hours, shifted early voting days, and purchased on-demand ballot printers ahead of the 2024 election.

It is difficult to extrapolate the workings of such a unique election system to other states, especially because North Dakota’s lack of voter registration at the time the National Voter Registration Act was passed exempts it from the many federal requirements imposed on almost every other state. However, the success of North Dakota’s electoral system can be emulated by similar policies such as automatic and same-day voter registration. BPC recommends that states establish opt-out automatic voter registration, a process where qualified individuals are automatically registered to vote when interacting with government agencies like the Department of Motor Vehicles unless they explicitly choose otherwise. Streamlining the voter registration process via automatic voter registration and prioritizing ballot access for underserved populations serve as attainable first steps for other states.

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