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Is the Trump Administration Planning to Pressure States to Aggressively Purge Voter Rolls?

We’re suing to find out

August 7, 2018

Today, the Brennan Center, represented by American Oversight, sued the U.S. Department of Justice for withholding documents related to the DOJ’s investigation of state election practices. The federal government must meet its obligations to be transparent about the way in which it regulates national elections and oversees state voting practices. These documents, in particular, could shed significant light on the DOJ’s plans with respect to voter purges. They should be made public. 

Last year, the Trump administration sent a letter to election officials in every state, asking that they turn over details about the state’s voters to the so-called Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity. Bipartisan criticism was swift and fierce, with voters, voting rights groups, and election officials themselves sounding the alarm about voter privacy and information security. This overbroad, intrusive, and unnecessary request — and the subsequent reaction — contributed to the Commission’s eventual demise.

Largely lost amid the outcry over that letter, though, was a second request that the Trump administration made to state election officials that same day, in which the DOJ quietly asked state officials to share detailed information about how they keep their voter rolls up-to-date. The DOJ offered little explanation for its request, other than that it came as part of the agency’s “nationwide enforcement efforts.” We are concerned that the letter, though less publicized, could open up a significant front in the administration’s ongoing effort to undermine voting rights.

We want to know why the DOJ sent the letter and what information it received in response from the states who were sent it. That’s why we filed a request with the DOJ for documents containing that information, pursuant to the federal Freedom of Information Act. But this spring, the DOJ largely denied our request and refused to disclose documents relevant to our request, even though it acknowledged that such documents exist. Then, the DOJ failed to act on our appeal of this refusal. 

So today, we sued.

Here’s why this all matters: The process of removing voters from the rolls — often called list maintenance or voter “purging” — is highly technical. When done properly, periodic purges help keep voter lists up-to-date. Too often, however, purges are based on bad data or faulty processes, and as a result, eligible voters get kicked off the rolls and find their voices silenced on Election Day. The Trump DOJ has already taken steps to undermine voting rights for some Americans. There’s real reason to be concerned that the DOJ’s letter is a prelude to a broader effort to force states to more aggressively purge voter rolls. 

There’s historical precedent behind our concern. During the George W. Bush administration, the DOJ engaged in a highly politicized effort to force certain jurisdictions to purge their rolls more aggressively. In fact, a key part of the notorious U.S. Attorney scandal during the Bush administration grew from ill-founded efforts to force a purge of Missouri’s voter rolls.

And context, as always, is key. As we documented in a recent report, states have grown much more aggressive in recent years in purging voters from the rolls. Almost 4 million more names were deleted from the rolls between 2014 and 2016 than between 2006 and 2008. And, disturbingly, purge rates were significantly higher in jurisdictions that were previously subject to the federal preclearance regime under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. More recently, private groups, ideologically aligned with the Trump administration on voting issues, have sent letters and filed lawsuits seeking to pressure local elections officials into even more aggressive voter purges.

The DOJ’s response to our public records request did nothing to quell our suspicions. One of the primary reasons that the DOJ claims it is permitted to withhold many of the documents we are requesting is that their disclosure could interfere with law-enforcement proceedings. The DOJ’s insistence on secrecy is concerning — the agency should be open and transparent about helping states meet legal requirements for federal elections. 

The DOJ’s position — and its other legal claims that most of the documents are exempt from disclosure — will now be tested in court. Stay tuned.

(Photo: Getty Images)