Study Finds States Purging Millions of Voters in Secret, Often Erroneously

October 1, 2008

purge graphicFor Immediate Release

Contact: Tim Bradley, BerlinRosen Public Affairs, (646) 452-5637

 

Brennan Center Reveals Wild Inconsistencies in Maintenance of Voter Registration Lists—Issues Public Records Requests in 12 States with Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

New York – Today the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law released one of the first systematic examinations of voter purging, a practice—often controversial—of removing voters from registration lists in order to update state registration rolls—click here for report. After a detailed study of the purge practices of 12 states, Voter Purges reveals that election officials across the country are routinely striking millions of voters from the rolls through a process that is shrouded in secrecy, prone to error, and vulnerable to manipulation. Upon the release of Voter Purges, today the Brennan Center and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law began filing public records requests with election officials in 12 states in order to expose the purges that happened this year. 

"Purges can be an important way to ensure that voter rolls are dependable, accurate and up-to-date," said Myrna Pérez, counsel at the Brennan Center and the author of the report. "Far too frequently, however, eligible, registered citizens show up to vote and discover their names have been removed from the voter lists because election officials are maintaining their voter rolls with little accountability and wildly varying standards," Myrna Pérez stated.

pull quoteAccording to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, between 2004 and 2006, thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia reported purging more than 13 million voters from registration rolls. While the secret and inconsistent manner in which purges are conducted make it difficult to know exactly how many voters have been stricken from voting lists erroneously, Voter Purges finds four problematic practices with voter purges that continue to threaten voters in 2008: purges rely on error-ridden lists; voters are purged secretly and without notice; bad "matching" criteria mean that thousands of eligible voters will be caught up in purges; and insufficient oversight leaves voters vulnerable to erroneous or manipulated purges. The report reveals that purge practices vary dramatically from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, that there is a lack of consistent protections for voters, and that there are often opportunities for mischief and mistakes in the purge process.

"The voter rolls are the gateway to voting, and a citizen typically cannot cast a vote that will count unless his or her name appears on the rolls. Purges remove names from the voter rolls, typically preventing wrongfully purged voters from having their votes counted. Given the close margins by which elections are won, the number of people wrongfully purged can make a difference. We should not tolerate purges that are conducted behind closed doors, without public scrutiny, and without adequate recourse for affected voters," said Wendy Weiser, Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center.

ballot boxVoter Purges reviews the state statutes, regulatory materials, and news reports in 12 diverse states: Florida, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Washington, and Wisconsin. In five states—Kentucky, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, and Washington—the Brennan Center study also draws on extensive interviews with state and local election officials charged with the maintenance of voter registration lists.

The list of states in which the Brennan Center and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law began filing public records requests for purge records today includes 12 states. They were chosen because they had flawed purges or voter registration practices in the past, they use problematic purge procedures with insufficient protections for voters, they recently conducted large-scale purges, or they have specific practices in place that warrant further examination.

"Every year, the Election Protection hotline receives calls from across the country from eligible voters whose names have been removed from the voter rolls. We need to take the lid off the secret process of voter purges so we can remedy any problems we discover and ensure that they don't recur in the future," said Jonah Goldman, Director of the National Campaign for Fair Elections at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which coordinates the national Election Protection program.

"Nearly every purge that has come to light has bumped eligible voters off the rolls. Because purges are done in secret on an ad hoc basis, the only way to find out what is actually happening and if eligible voters have been wrongfully purged in droves is through public records requests," said Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center.

Several examples of recent purges made public reveal that purge practices are in dire need of improvement:

  • In Mississippi earlier this year, a local election official discovered that another official had wrongly purged 10,000 voters from her home computer just a week before the presidential primary.
  • In Muscogee, Georgia this year, a county official purged 700 people from the voter lists, supposedly because they were ineligible to vote due to criminal convictions. The list included people who claimed to have never even received a parking ticket.
  • In Louisiana, including areas hit hard by hurricanes, officials purged approximately 21,000 voters, ostensibly for registering to vote in another state, but did not provide adequate opportunity to contest the records.

Flawed purges are sometimes caused by erroneous government lists. For example, even though Hilde Stafford, a Wappingers Falls, New York, resident, was still alive and voting in 2006, the Social Security Administration's Death Master File—a database of 77 million deaths dating back to 1937—lists her date of death as June 15, 1997. Indeed, from January 2004 to September 2005, the Social Security Administration had to "resurrect" the records of 23,366 people wrongly added to its Death Master File.

pull quoteAnother cause of erroneous purges is flawed procedures for generating purge lists. In the infamous Florida purge of 2000—for which conservative estimates place the number of wrongfully purged voters close to 12,000—Florida registrants were purged from the rolls if 80 percent of the letters of their last names were the same as those of persons with criminal convictions. Those wrongly purged included Reverend Willie D. Whiting Jr., who, under the matching criteria, was considered the same person as Willie J. Whiting.

In 2004, Florida planned to remove 48,000 "suspected felons" from its voter rolls even though many of those identified were in fact eligible to vote. When the flawed process generated a list of 22,000 African Americans to be purged—and only 61 voters with Hispanic surnames, in spite of Florida's sizable Hispanic population—it took pressure from voting rights groups to stop Florida officials from using the purge list.

Voter Purges contains several recommendations to improve the transparency, accountability, and accuracy of purges, including notice to individual voters and the public, strict and uniform criteria for the development of purge lists, and "fail-safe" provisions to protect voters from erroneous purges. An overall fix is the establishment of a system of universal voter registration, with protections for voters erroneously left out.

"It is essential that we put in place standards for voter purges to ensure public accountability and protection for voters," said Myrna Pérez of the Brennan Center.

"There really are no effective national standards to govern voter purges, and the result is a chaotic, whimsical approach to the maintenance of voter rolls," said Michael Waldman, Executive Director of the Brennan Center. "The lack of consistent rules and procedures means that Americans across the country lack basic protections against erroneous purges. We encourage election officials, legislators, advocates and concerned members of the public to use this report to improve voter purge practices and ensure that the rights of eligible voters are not jeopardized," Waldman concluded.

A full copy of the Brennan Center's analysis of purge practices and recommendations is available here: www.brennancenter.org/purges. The Brennan Center's website is www.brennancenter.org.

The website for the Election Protection program is www.866ourvote.org, and for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law is www.lawyerscommittee.org

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