Tennessee’s “deficient” voter registration problem

A partisan battle has erupted in Tennessee about the rules for purging the voter rolls. It’s time to take the politics—and the errors—out of the voter registration system.

April 27, 2010

A minor partisan battle has erupted in Tennessee about the rules for purging the voter rolls.

According to local news reports, earlier this year, local election officials in two counties reviewed their records to identify registered individuals whose initial voter registration applications were "deficient" in some respect. A registration was deemed "deficient" not only if it showed a voter to be ineligible (in fact, there are no reports of ineligible registrants), but also if there was a minor omission on the form, such as the failure to check a box. The result: more than one in five voters in those counties—many of them long-time voters—received letters questioning their registrations. 

After a brouhaha involving the family members of a local candidate, it looks like these voters will not be purged after all. But the controversy rages on, shifting from local election offices to the state legislature, both houses of which are considering legislation to prohibit officials from purging a previously-accepted registration based on a minor omission unless there was fraud or a missing signature. 

I have previously written about how the federal Voting Rights Act already prohibits state officials from denying individuals the right to register or vote based on minor errors or omission in paperwork. When a registration has already been accepted, officials must also follow the National Voter Registration Act—and the Constitution’s Due Process Clause—before removing the voter’s name from the rolls. In other words, the rule proposed in the pending Tennessee legislation is already required by federal law. (Federal law also likely prohibits purging previously-registered voters from the rolls solely based on the fact that they did not sign their initial voter registration applications.)

While the pending bill may resolve the current voter roll controversy, it leaves the broader problem unaddressed. Tennessee’s "deficient" voter registration problem is a product of two general deficiencies with our current voter registration system: first, the system is based on paper applications, and second, the system relies on individual voters’ initiative to make sure that the voter rolls are complete and accurate. Both of these features are outdated and bound to lead to problems [pdf].

A voter registration system for the twenty-first century would largely do away with paper applications—and all the errors, confusion, and lost information they cause—and would rely on government officials (instead of millions of individuals) to use existing government records to get the voter rolls right. By using reliable information from other government lists to register consenting eligible citizens and to update the rolls, a modern system would largely eliminate the problem of incomplete or inaccurate voter registrations. And by providing fail-safe mechanisms to ensure that every eligible voter can check and correct her registration record up through Election Day, a modern system would largely eliminate the problem of vote denial because of faulty voter roll purges. In other words, Tennessee can have its cake and eat it too—ensuring accurate voter rolls while preventing unwarranted disenfranchisement—and prevent this debate from resurfacing in the future, by modernizing its voter registration system. That is why more and more states are moving in this direction—that, and the millions of dollars of savings each year.

Another benefit of modernizing the voter registration system is that it would remove politics from what should be a purely administrative function. Our current error-laden and discretion-filled voter registration system is far too prone to political battles, with Democrats accusing Republicans of using the system to suppress the vote and Republicans accusing Democrats of using it to promote voter fraud. Tennessee is a case in point: one of the Democratic sponsors of the pending purge legislation apparently blamed partisanship for the recent letters to voters, accusing Republicans of trying to knock Democrats off the rolls. It’s time to take the politics—and the errors—out of the voter registration system and to move into the 21st century. Rather than tinkering around the edges, Tennessee—and the rest of the states—should adopt broader legislation to modernization the registration system.

The Brennan Center sent letters to state and local election officials concerning the purge situation. 

The letters are available here:
Letter to Mark Goins, Coordinator for Elections in the Division of Elections of the Tennessee Department of State [pdf]
Letter to Mark Ward, Election Administrator in Benton County [pdf]