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

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.

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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