Voter Challenges & Caging

November 9, 2012

Unfair challenges or caging practices may lead to the removal of eligible voters from the voter rolls. To guard against these problems, the Brennan Center provides legal assistance to government officials and advocates seeking to ensure that challenges are non-discriminatory and do not result in the disenfranchisement of eligible voters.

Voter Challenges

Voter challenges are formal challenges lodged by political operatives or private citizens to the eligibility of persons presenting themselves to vote, either at the polls or prior to Election Day. Voter challenge laws vary from state to state, as do legally permissible challenge practices. When challenges are used improperly, they can have the effect of intimidating voters or suppress voter participation.

Because this conduct has the potential to interfere with an eligible citizen’s vote, it is important to have a clear understanding of what is and is not allowed under the law. Specifically, voters should be armed with the knowledge that federal and state law afford protections against "ballot security efforts" — an umbrella term for a variety of practices that are carried out by political operatives and private groups with the stated goal of preventing voter fraud — when they are discriminatory, intimidating, deceptive, or when they seek to disenfranchise voters on the basis of unreliable information. Those who participate in ballot security programs should take care to ensure that their initiatives do not encroach upon the rights of eligible voters and run afoul of state and federal laws.

Voter Caging

Voter caging is a tactic that jeopardizes eligible citizens' ability to vote. The process involves efforts to identify and disenfranchise improperly registered voters solely on the basis of an undeliverable mailing. The most common method involves three steps:

  • send mail to addresses on the voter rolls,
  • compile a list of the mail that is returned undelivered, and
  • use that list to purge or challenge voters’ registrations on the grounds that the voters on the list do not legally reside at their registered addresses. 

Supporters of voter caging defend the practice as a means of preventing votes cast by ineligible voters. Voter caging, however, is notoriously unreliable. If it is treated as the sole basis for determining that a voter is ineligible or does not live at the address at which he or she registered, it can lead to the unwarranted purge or challenge of eligible voters.