Calls for More Purges Rest on Shaky Data

We examined the claims of groups pushing for aggressive purging. They didn’t hold up.

October 19, 2018

In July, a Brennan Center report revealed that voter purges are on the rise nationwide, raising the threat that significant numbers of eligible voters could be disenfranchised. The report also found that the rise in purges has coincided with several activist groups leading campaigns to pressure election officials to purge more people from the voter rolls. This push has included, at times, lawsuits seeking the implementation of aggressive purge practices.

Now, the Brennan Center has looked more closely at the activities of the four organizations leading the charge for more purges — Judicial Watch, the American Civil Rights Union (ACRU), True the Vote, and Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF). These four groups have collectively sent letters to more than 450 jurisdictions since 2012, claiming that they’re violating federal voting law by not purging aggressively enough. 

We found:

  • These groups base their calls for more purges on claims that registration rates are inflated by ineligible voters. But when looking at some of the recent assertions by PILF in particular, the data suggests that some of the claims are exaggerated and even flatly contradicted by the same sources of evidence on which they are based. 
  • These groups as a whole are more likely to sue jurisdictions with higher minority populations, even if there is no apparent racial pattern in the areas they initially contact. 

No one objects to responsible voter roll maintenance. There is agreement that election officials should clean the rolls when people move, die, or otherwise become ineligible. But when officials don’t use appropriate safeguards or transparency, eligible voters are at risk of being taken off the rolls erroneously or without notice. 

PILF’s False Claims About Ineligible Voters

PILF has been the most active of the four groups we looked at, contacting more than 250 jurisdictions just since last year. It also has represented ACRU in several lawsuits. PILF typically claims a county has more voters on the registration rolls than eligible voters. Though they typically do not provide specific numbers, they say the claim is based on Census population figures and voter registration data collected by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission (EAC). 

In response to these claims, the Brennan Center worked with partner organizations Demos and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Lawto contactall jurisdictions to which PILF sent letters in 2017 and request public records regarding the counties’ list maintenance practices. The Brennan Center compared that information, along with all publicly available data, to PILF’s assertions.

The three counties below are examples of jurisdictions PILF claimed had, in its words, more voters “on the registration rolls than eligible, living voters.” In each case, a comparison in the relevant time period between registration numbers provided by the counties to the EAC and what the American Community Survey estimates the citizen voting age population (CVAP, eligible voters) to be reveals that the claim appears to be false:

  • Plumas County, California

o  Registered voters: 13,230

o  Eligible voters (estimated): 15,240

  • Edwards County, Texas 

o  Registered voters: 1,398

o  Eligible Voters (estimated): 1,480

  • Kenedy County, Texas

o  Registered voters: 265

o  Eligible Voters (estimated): 315

We found other methodological flaws. In general, PILF did not take the time to analyze why the figures upon which they relied did not accurately measure either the number of active voters or the extent of the eligible populations. Sometimes, PILF included in “registered” counts “inactive” voters — those whom jurisdictions have already identified as potentially ineligible and who may already be on the path to be removed. Sometimes they even included “non-active” records — most of which represent voters who have already been canceled but for sound reasons had not been wiped entirely from the voter registration database. 

On the other side of the equation, PILF did not consider that for some counties, census data might not accurately measure the eligible voting population. This is particularly true for counties with low populations, seasonal residents, or individuals who might be temporarily absent for school, work, or military service but still eligible to vote. A few illustrative examples of some of these flaws are below:

  • Roberts County, Texas, responded to PILF by explaining it has many part-time residents who are counted by the Census elsewhere but are eligible to vote in the county. Thus, it appeared to have 692 registered voters (when the total number of eligible voters as reported by the American Community Survey was 697), because the Census number under-represented the actual eligible population. 
     
  • Clark County, Washington, claims that the EAC report on registered voters wrongly included about 200,000 voter records on account of a conflation of database terminology (in this state, persons with “non-active” records are not able to vote, whereas voters in other categories like “inactive” can still vote). Fewer than one sixth of these 200,000 voters were actually still on the rolls, and thus PILF’s numbers are based on an overestimation of the registered population by about 170,000.
     
  • Similarly, San Diego County retains all of its records in its voter data file, and PILF presumed that there were 2.5 million voters on the rolls compared to an adult population of 2.6 million, perhaps due to another misunderstanding of terminology). But the number of relevant (active) voters is only 1.67 million. 
     
  • Colorado’s response to PILF further illustrates how big the difference can be when not comparing the right categories. Colorado provided a breakdown of the difference in these figures among counties targeted by PILF: 

Colorado Counties

 “Registration” Rate

 “Active Registration” Rate*

Archuleta 

100.4

80.5

Baca 

99.6

89.1

Boulder 

92.7

77.5

Cheyenne 

103.2

95.8

Clear Creek 

100.3

83.8

Dolores 

103.3

91.3

Gilpin 

100.0

81.1

Hinsdale 

119.1

109.4

Jackson 

107.6

85.7

Mineral 

132.2

121.2

Moffat 

100.3

73.6

Ouray 

109.4

90.2

Park 

98.8

83.2

Phillips 

97.7

80.0

Pitkin

100.5

80.0

San Juan 

117.7

92.3

Summit 

104.4

72.7

*Brennan Center for Justice chart adapted from figures provided by Colorado. Colorado used the American Community Survey 2016 population estimates to calculate counties’ active registration rate. The citizen voting age population estimates are similar for most counties. Hinsdale and Mineral, small counties, have registration numbers above their Census-estimated populations (as well as Dolores and San Juan, when using CVAP). The Colorado secretary of state’s office said this is because “census projections don’t adequately account for populations in these counties where many seasonal residents may be absent during census visits,” as was the case with Roberts County, Texas. 

Lawsuits Target Minorities

There are no discernable trends in the demographics of the 450 counties that received letters from these groups in total pressuring them to conduct purges. But there are exceptions within certain states: All 12 counties in Alabama that received letters were majority black, along with 17 of 19 counties in Mississippi. 

State

Jurisdiction

Years Suits Were Brought

Group(s) Involved in Suit

California

Los Angeles

2017

Judicial Watch, Election Integrity Project

California

State of California

2017

Judicial Watch, Election Integrity Project

Colorado

Gilpin County

2014, 2015, 2017

TTV

Colorado

Mineral County

2014, 2015, 2017

TTV

Florida

Broward County

2016

ACRU, PILF

Indiana

State of Indiana

2012

Judicial Watch, TTV, Election Law Center

Kentucky 

State of Kentucky

2017

Judicial Watch

Mississippi

Clarke County

2014

ACRU

Mississippi

Jefferson Davis County

2013, 2014

ACRU, Election Law Center

Mississippi

Noxubee County

2014, 2015

ACRU, PILF

Mississippi

Walthall County

2013, 2014, 2015

ACRU, Election Law Center

North Carolina

State of North Carolina

2017

ACRU, PILF

North Carolina

Wake County

2016

Voter Integrity Project NC, PILF

Ohio

State of Ohio

2012

Judicial Watch, TTV, Election Law Center

Texas

Starr County

2015

ACRU, PILF

Texas

Terrell County

2013, 2015

ACRU

Texas

Zavala County

2014, 2015

ACRU, Election Law Center

Virginia

Alexandria

2016

Virginia Voter's Alliance, Election Law Center

 

And when looking at the smaller number of jurisdictions that were actually sued, a different picture emerges: Minority communities were singled out for lawsuits. We found:

  • Nine out of the 13 jurisdictions sued by Judicial Watch in Alabama and Texas were majority non-Hispanic white (“non-white”). 
  • The lone lawsuit filed in Pennsylvania was brought against Philadelphia, whose non-white population is 64.7 percent.
  • The only Florida suit was brought in Broward County, whose non-white population is 63.5 percent.
  • In California, Judicial Watch sued two jurisdictions: the entire state and Los Angeles County, whose non-white population is 73.8 percent. 
  • Most recently, ACRU announced a settlement in Starr County, Texas, whose non-white population is 96.7 percent.

Good voter list maintenance benefits us all, and jurisdictions should strive to have top-flight practices. Election officials should be wary, however, of exaggerated or false claims used to demand more purging. 

Kevin Morris and Rebecca Ayala provided research for this article.

(Image: Jessica McGowan/Getty)