Iowa can improve the accuracy and reliability of its registration rolls by adopting address update automation.  Address update automation automatically shares address and name updates received at motor vehicle offices with election officials. The Secretary of State and county election officials update voter registration records based on this information sharing and then notify voters of the change, providing an opportunity to undo the update if necessary.

In addition to greatly improving the integrity and accuracy of voter rolls, address update automation would significantly reduce registration and election administration costs. We estimate that this change could save nearly $1.3 million statewide in each election cycle by eliminating paper-based registrations and reducing undeliverable election mail.

Estimated Savings from Address Update Automation in Iowa, 2018 Election Cycle

Effect of AVR Estimated Statewide Savings
Reduced Paper-Based Update Forms $1,157,995.36
Reduced Undeliverable Mail $122,252.00
Total $1,280,247.36

Savings from Eliminating Paper-Based Registrations

Processing paper voter registration forms when voters move between or within counties or update their names is labor-intensive and expensive. Among other steps, the process includes data entry, following up with voters on missing or unclear information, and paying overtime and additional temporary staff to process paper forms in a timely fashion before Election Day.

Research shows that these costs are significant, and that there are significant savings from election administration changes that reduce these paper-based forms. For example, after implementing online voter registration (OVR) in 2002, Arizona went from spending more than 83 cents for each paper form to less than 3 cents for each online transaction. See Washington Institute of the Study of Ethnicity and Race et al., Online Voter Registration (OLVR) Systems in Arizona and Washington: Evaluating Usage, Public Confidence and Implementation Processes, (2010).

Automating address updates can likewise replace tens of thousands of additional paper forms filed by mail or in-person. When people’s registration records are updated securely and electronically through an automated process at the DMV, a subsequent paper update becomes unnecessary. The potential cost savings of automating updates are significant, as shown in the following table estimating the labor costs associated with paper-based update forms for the entire State of Iowa and two large, medium, and small counties in the State. We estimate that Iowa counties spent more than $1.1 million on processing paper-based registration update forms during the 2018 election cycle alone. The costs are significant regardless of county size. The State’s largest county, Polk County, could have saved more than $150,000 from eliminating paper-based forms, while smaller counties could have saved more than ten thousand dollars by reducing paper update forms.

Estimated Labor Cost of Paper-Based Updates in Iowa, 2018 Election Cycle

County Name Total Registered Est. Paper Update Forms Est. Avg. Labor Cost per Form Est. Total Labor Cost
Polk 315,239 44,684 $3.45 $154,159.80
Linn 156,024 17,624 $3.45 $60,802.80
Story 72,037 9,429 $5.91 $55,725.39
Dallas 62,801 9,558 $5.91 $56,487.78
Marshall 24,987 2,393 $5.33 $12,754.69
Boone 19,759 2,387 $5.33 $12,722.71
Statewide 2,193,813 245,338 $4.72 $1,157,995.36

In this analysis, labor costs rely on 2017 estimates of the average cost of full-time staff processing registration forms, following up with voters about missing or erroneous information, and temporary staff processing forms. See Doug Chapin & David Kuennen, The Cost (Savings) of Reform: An Analysis of Local Registration-Related Costs and Potential Savings Through Automatic Voter Registration, March 2017. We estimate these costs for individual counties based on survey data of election officials in large, medium, and small jurisdictions regarding the costs of processing registration applications. Id. Notably, this estimate does not include the costs of printing forms and mailings related to duplicate registrations, meaning that our estimate is relatively conservative.

The registration and form totals are drawn from the Election Assistance Commission’s 2018 Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS) data. We calculate paper-based update forms by considering the proportion of all registration forms (both new and updates) submitted in-person or by mail during the 2018 election cycle. We then apply this ratio to the total number of update forms to estimate the number of update forms submitted by paper.

Savings from Reducing Undeliverable Mail

 Automated address updates can similarly achieve significant savings by reducing undeliverable mailings to Iowa voters. Automated voter registration will ensure that registration records contain the correct information, as opposed to relying on out of date information. Updated address information from DMVs ensures that election related mailings reach voters at the correct address and are not returned as undeliverable.

Each election cycle, county officials send mailers to all active registered voters.  These include mailers that advise them of their polling place, describe options for requesting an absentee ballot, or provide a sample ballot. Each mailing costs money for production, processing, and postage.  However, some portion of these mailers will be returned undeliverable due to out of date address information.

The following table estimates potential savings from reducing undeliverable mail, both statewide and in three representative counties. As the table shows, reducing undeliverable mail over four mailers per election cycle could save Iowa counties nearly $125,000 per election cycle. If voter addresses were automatically updated in advance of the election, these mailings would reach the correct address, significantly reducing the number returned as undeliverable.

Estimated Cost for Undeliverable Mail in Iowa, 2018 Election Cycle

Jurisdiction Active Voters Est. Undeliv.

Mail (3%)

Cost ($0.50/each) Est. Total (4 Mailings/Cycle)
Statewide 2,037,516 61,126 $30,563.00 $122,252.00
Polk 295,957 8,879 $4,439.50 $17,758.00
Dubuque 65,663 1,970 $985.00 $3,940.00
Warren 34,332 1,030 $515.00 $2,060.00

We conservatively estimate that 3% of election mail is returned as undeliverable. See United States Census Bureau, CB16–189, Americans Moving at Historically Low Rates, (estimating that more than 10% of Americans move each year); U.S. Postal Service, Office of Inspector Gen., MS–MA–15–006, Strategies for Reducing Undeliverable as Addressed Mail (2015) (estimating that “[a]s many as 40 percent of people who move do not inform the Postal Service”).  Similarly, we assume each mailing costs $0.50 in production, processing, and postage. Totals for active registered voters are drawn from the 2018 EAVS data.


Although automating address updates at Iowa motor vehicle offices has short-term implementation costs, they are far outweighed by long-term savings. By significantly reducing paper registration forms and undeliverable election mail, we estimate that Iowa could save nearly $1.3 million dollars per election cycle.