Local election administrators form the front line in protecting voters from disenfranchisement. It was certainly welcome news that the Department of Justice sent a letter last week to Florida’s Secretary of State Ken Detzner to remind him of federal law prohibiting the Sunshine State from purging the voter rolls so close to an election. Voters and the courts also make a tremendous difference in the fight against state policies that could make it harder for millions of eligible Americans to vote. After seeing a wave of restrictive voting laws sweep the nation in the last year or so — the worst since the Jim Crow era — push back against these new but regressive policies is occurring across the country, from Maine to Texas and Wisconsin to South Carolina. The quiet heroes in the Florida purge story, however, may be those fastidious local supervisors of elections who have committed themselves to protecting voters, following federal law, and publicly stating their opposition to sloppy purge practices.
In mid-May, Detzner issued a press release announcing that he had a list of 182,000 people who were on the voter rolls, but ineligible to vote because they were non-citizens. Reports of similar lists for allegedly deceased voters and voters with criminal convictions soon surfaced. There is no dispute that our voter registration lists should be clean and accurate. However, the methodological problems with these types of purges and the proximity to the August primary generated abundant criticism. The almost immediate influx of stories of eligible Americans being incorrectly identified as non-citizens lent fuel to the fire, and many local supervisors of elections publicly criticized the planned purge.
Now, the local supervisors seem determined to not allow a repeat of the purge mistakes of 2000 and 2004. Local supervisors from both sides of the aisle — for example, Susan Bucher, Democrat of Palm Beach County, and Vicki Davis, Republican of Martin County — have come together in a strong stand against removing eligible voters from the rolls. In a bold move that evidences the importance of these issues, they announced they will not follow Detzner’s instructions on purging.
Uniformity is integral to fair elections, but across the country, the practices by which voter registration lists are maintained and cleaned vary from state to state, and even from locality to locality within a state. Chief state election officers, like Secretaries of State, should not abuse their power and exploit the need for uniformity to promulgate and enforce uniformly bad election procedures. Recognizing this, a local election administrator in Colorado defied an order of Colorado Secretary of State Scott Gessler to refrain from sending mail-in ballots to a class of eligible voters in a mail-only election. Gessler hauled her into court for doing so. Undeterred, another local election administrator has joined her in opposing the Secretary’s order.
Of course, sometimes the state election officer needs to step in when local election administrators get it wrong. For example, in Madison County, Mississippi, a local election administrator purged approximately 10,000 voters from her home computer just a week before the federal primaries in 2008. By all accounts, Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann worked hard to reinstate those voters.
Regardless of the source, the opportunity for errors when conducting massive voter purges makes it imperative that purge practices be transparent, accurate, and carried out well in advance of an election so that mistakes can be corrected in time for a voter to cast a ballot that will count. Consistent and uniform implementation of best practices will go a long way in ensuring that eligible voters are not thrown off the rolls by a stroke of the keyboard. It will also align the efforts of local supervisors and state-level election officials. Both groups do important work, and the public clashes between the two that we are now witnessing are easily avoided, to the benefit of both government efficiency and voters’ rights.
Unfortunately, local supervisors will continue to be tested in the weeks and months to come. Private citizens have taken up a vigilante effort to police the rolls on Election Day and question voters’ eligibility. One organization calling itself “True the Vote” has pledged to send a million people to polling locations to monitor and challenge voters. Local supervisors of elections, frequently understaffed and overworked, already have a very important and difficult job to do. The complications, confusion, and charged atmosphere these challenge groups create unnecessarily impose burdens on local supervisors who are already working hard to administer fair elections. If the challenge plans come to fruition, I hope local election administrators across the country continue to prove they have the power, ability, and obligation to protect voters.