Once citizens have registered to vote, this should only change when needed. Typical reasons are moving outside of the county, death, or being stripped of voting rights. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. In many states, officials in charge of voter registries deploy partisan voter purges to choose their voters.
These states are typically Republican, and there is a simple logic to their approach: Democrats have historically been more irregular voters. Democratic leaning voters typically turn out to vote in larger numbers for presidential elections, but in lesser numbers for midterm elections. Many are also in lower income and more unstable environments. For instance, low-income families tend to rent rather than own, and move more often. This creates an opportunity to target typical democratic voters under cover of ‘voter roll maintenance’.
What is voter roll maintenance?
Let’s be clear: it is in everyone’s interest to maintain up-to-date voter registration. As per Ballotpedia, properly done purges are a means to ensure that voter rolls are dependable, accurate, and up-to-date. Precise and carefully conducted purges can remove duplicate names and people who have moved, died, or are otherwise ineligible from the rolls.
As an example, the State of New York has a very logical process to maintain its voter rolls. They start by tracking address changes based on information from the Postal service (undelivered mail). They also use information from the DMV and other governmental agencies. When there appears to have been a change of address, they send a confirmation card to the registered address. If a voter does not respond, he/she is placed in inactive status. If this voter does not vote over the next election cycle, their registration is cancelled.
It’s easy enough to make partisan voter purges
However, given the differences in voting patterns of Democrats and Republicans, officials can use voter purges to remove Democratic leaning voters from the rolls. To achieve a targeted voter purges, a state can start the purge process based on nothing more than recent voting patterns. If someone has missed voting for the past couple elections, they will send a postcard asking for confirmation of registration.
Example of registration postcard in Indiana
The problem is in the specific process being applied. In some cases, state officials cancel registrations after a single unanswered postcard. Local residents then to show up to vote in an election and find themselves erroneously purged. This is what happened to Florida Gov. Rick Scott when he attempted to vote in 2012 only to find he’d been deleted from the registration lists. That was because someone named Richard E. Scott, who was born on the same day as the governor, had died six years earlier.
There are even examples of voter purges being done without any supporting data. In an incident reported by the Brennan Center for Justice, a county official purged 700 voters from the rolls in Muscogee, Georgia. The official asserted that they were ineligible to vote due to criminal convictions – but the list included people who had never even received a parking ticket.
Ohio voter purges
In another example, the Ohio state removed over 2 million Ohioans from voter rolls since 2011. As explained by the Washington Post, Ohio’s electoral system assumes that any voter who fails to vote for two years “may have moved”. The state then mails a confirmation notice to the voter’s registered address. The notice is the state’s only attempt to contact nonvoters. Voters who do not respond and fail to vote in the next four years are purged from the rolls.
It is also important to note what these state officials are not doing. They are not comparing with DMV records. They are not checking against postal information… The state starts acting simply based on citizens skipping a few elections. The state officials do not check against anything which would allow a positive confirmation. A single crummy postcard, which might be lost in the junkmail… and then the voter cannot vote at the next election without going through the whole onerous registration process again.
What is being done against voter purges
There is a tenuous hope for change. The Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling in the week of January 12, 2018 on this topic. As the Washington Post states, the justices must decide whether our democracy belongs to every citizen, or if those entrusted with maintaining the levers of power can control who gets to pull them. At it’s core, the decision should be simply: it is a matter of upholding the Motor Voter Act. But given the politics involved, the outcome is uncertain.
Irrespective of the Supreme Court decision, Republicans might however discover that this tactic is not in their best interest anymore. Indeed, partisan voting patterns appear to have changed in 2017. Historically, Republicans vote reliably at each and every election, and Democrats turn out mainly for the presidential elections. Democrats tend to vote at lower rates at the mid-terms. However, the 2017 special elections show that Republicans have voted at usual rates of turnout, while Democrats have voted at higher rates. If this pattern shifts durably, it might change the calculation for Republican State officials. Purging could result in more Republican voters running into registration issues and being prevented from voting.
Organizations to consider
The Brennan Center for Justice is a mid-sized organization which is very active on the theme of voting rights. They combine in depth research and litigation to address voting rights concerns.
As always, please let us know of other organizations which are addressing this issue.