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How Purges Could Disenfranchise Voters This Fall

Flawed voter purges could cause voters to be turned away at the polls, threatening the midterm election.

July 20, 2018

Excerp­ted and cross-posted from The New York Times.

This fall, millions of Amer­ic­ans may head to the polls only to find their names aren’t on voter regis­tra­tion lists anymore. These voters may have to cast provi­sional ballots. Or worse, they could be turned away from the polls alto­gether.

The cause? Voter purges — an often-flawed method of clean­ing up voter regis­tra­tion lists by delet­ing names from voter rolls.

Purges, of course, aren’t neces­sar­ily a bad thing. State and local elec­tion offi­cials have a real need to ensure voting lists are accur­ate and up-to-date. During the course of a life­time, people move. Some­times people change their names. And inev­it­ably, people die. Voter rolls should reflect those changes.

But purges are a grow­ing threat that we’ve found may imperil the right to vote for millions of Amer­ic­ans in the midterm elec­tions in Novem­ber.

In the past decade, attacks on the vote have been treach­er­ous: discrim­in­at­ory voter ID laws, cutbacks in early voting and other complic­a­tions that emerged from bad laws or policies formu­lated weeks, months or even years before Elec­tion Day.

For the most part, we could see those attacks coming, because of public debate in state legis­latures or high-profile lawsuits chal­len­ging these bad policies in court­houses across the coun­try.

But the threat land­scape has grown. Our research shows that state and local processes to remove supposedly ineligible people from voter rolls are too often based on bad inform­a­tion — like “ineligible” lists that contain the names of eligible voters, or match­ing processes that confuse two differ­ent people for the same one.

Yet purge rates are on the rise across the coun­try, and partic­u­larly in a cluster of South­ern states no longer under certain protec­tions of the Voting Rights Act. And unlike anti-voter legis­la­tion, bad purges often happen in an office with the stroke of keyboard — mean­ing that voters knocked off the rolls may not real­ize what’s happened until it’s too late.

Over the past 12 months, our team of research­ers and attor­neys has pored over data from 6,600 cities, towns and counties across the coun­try and found the median rate of purging across the coun­try has risen from 6.2 percent to 7.8 percent since 2008. That may seem like a small jump, but it’s stat­ist­ic­ally signi­fic­ant and cannot be explained by popu­la­tion growth. It amounts to about four million more people being purged.

We attrib­ute much of that rise to balloon­ing purge rates in many of the places once subject to the preclear­ance section of the Voting Rights Act that protec­ted against discrim­in­a­tion by requir­ing places with a troubled history to seek approval from the federal govern­ment or courts before they could make changes to voting laws.

In 2013, the Supreme Court knocked down that section of the Voting Rights Act, and our analysis shows that since then, purge rates in places that used to have to go through preclear­ance have ramped up. In fact, two million more people were booted from regis­tra­tion lists between 2012 and 2016 in juris­dic­tions covered by preclear­ance than would have been kicked off if purge rates in those areas contin­ued at the same rate as juris­dic­tions that weren’t subject to preclear­ance.

Read the full op-ed at The New York Times.

(Photo Illus­tra­tion: Bren­nan Center; Shut­ter­stock)


This post is part of the Bren­nan Center’s work to Protect the Vote in the 2018 midterm elec­tions.

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