West Virginia’s secretary of state reported last month that more than 100,000 voters — about one in 12 registered voters — had been purged from the rolls prior to the upcoming election.
As we documented in a major July report, West Virginia is one of several states that have purged their rolls more aggressively in recent years, raising concerns that eligible voters could be disenfranchised.
In order to keep voter rolls accurate, election officials need to periodically remove the names of voters who have died or moved. But purges conducted without sufficient care can lead to the removal of eligible voters.
West Virginia’s removals deserve close scrutiny. Some voters in the state have reported problems including being unable to access their records online, and counties reported differing remedies for restoring the registrations of those removed by mistake.
The Brennan Center reviewed public reports and conducted interviews with voters and election officials to assess West Virginia’s voting landscape leading up to next month’s election. Here’s what we found:
A Surge of Voter Removals in West Virginia
West Virginia has removed 102,797 voters from the rolls since the beginning of 2017. The process began when West Virginia Secretary of State Mac Warner provided data on potentially ineligible voters to county election clerks, who then removed records from voter registration lists. Nearly half of the removals — more than 47,000 in total — had occurredby April 2017.
The process of identifying ineligible voters began prior to 2017. The year before, West Virginia had joined the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), a program that both removes ineligible voters and identifies eligible but unregistered citizens. Under federal law, if voters are removed because of a changed address, they must first be given a notice and a two-election waiting period (an “NVRA notice”). The secretary of state’s office told us that many of the voters removed in 2017 or 2018 had been given initial notice prior to the 2014 election and had not voted in 2014 or 2016. Others voters were removed after a period of inactivity — which is a dubious basis for removing voters because many eligible voters choose to sit out elections but one that was recently upheld by the Supreme Court. (These voters also received an NVRA notice.)
County election officials also deleted records of voters they determined had died, had been convicted of a disenfranchising crime, or were duplicate records. These individuals did not receive an individual notice of their removal, unlike voters removed for change of address or inactivity.
West Virginians Reported Problems Confirming their Registration Status
In our interviews and in the press, voters across West Virginia reported problems with their registration records. Eligible West Virginia voters — including a candidate for elected office and a teacher — were unable to locate their voter records online. We also spoke with at least five people with family members who could not find their voter records despite using their current address to vote in the past. Another issue was that the secretary of state’s voter lookup tool erroneously told some registered voters that their records were unlocatable. As a result, some registered voters could not find their records because the website was not working properly, while other voters had actually been purged.
In contrast, the county officials we spoke with reported that for the most part, the list maintenance process went smoothly. Most officials said they were unaware of any individuals who had been removed wrongly. However, some of these officials were from counties in which we also spoke to voters who were purged. County officials did acknowledge that mistakes do happen. This can be particularly problematic when the voter does not get notice. For example, if an official wrongly determines that a voting record is a duplicate, the voter will not get a notice of the change.
The Problem with Large Voter Purges
As a general matter, errors get magnified when purging a large number of voters at once. For example, the New York City Board of Elections’s failure to perform routine list maintenance contributed to a highly problematic (and illegal) voter purge prior to the 2016 primary elections. Many voters reported that they were incorrectly purged based on change-of-address data and were given insufficient notice to remedy the problem. If the Board did not try to purge more than 200,000 voters at a time, and instead used a more periodic process, they could have discovered the mistakes sooner and affected a smaller number of voters.
Given that large purges increase the potential for and the scale of mistakes, it is worth noting that multiple West Virginia counties removed a very large percentage of their voter rolls in the 2017 to 2018 period. Calhoun County, for example, removed 21 percent of its voter registration list.
The full extent of the errors in West Virginia’s voter rolls will be unclear until Election Day, when voters who were wrongly purged will find out at the polls. Regardless, the large number of removals will likely contribute to a larger scope of errors.
Counties Reported Inconsistent Procedures for Restoring Wrongly Purged Voters
Counties differed in how they addressed the issue of wrongly removed voters. Some county officials informed us that if voters report wrongful removals between now and Election Day, the county would restore them to the rolls after investigation. Other county officials recommended voting with a provisional ballot on Election Day, which would be counted if the canvassing board determines the removal was incorrect. (This option will be available in all counties, as required by West Virginia law). Still others deferred to the secretary of state.
The provisional ballot process can help voters who were removed get their votes counted. But it is not a perfect solution, as the secretary of state’s office acknowledged when we spoke with them. The process can cause confusion and delays on Election Day, and in some cases, canvassing boards may not count ballots that they should.
Here’s How West Virginia Voters Can Protect Their Votes
West Virginia voters should verify their registration status even if they have voted previously using their current address. The secretary of state’s office reported taking steps to fix the lookup tool but advised that voters experiencing trouble should try looking again an hour or two later, as there may be ongoing technical issues. In addition, the Internet Explorer browser may cause people to be erroneously listed as unregistered, and voters should use a different browser to check their status.
Voters who cannot determine whether they are properly registered should contact their county clerk. Even if the county does not restore the voter to the rolls prior to the election, voters should confirm Election Day requirements in advance. Voters who show up at the correct polling location but are missing from the pollbook should cast a provisional ballot and find out how to get their vote counted.
Finally, if you experience voting problems, please reach out to Election Protection, a nonpartisan voter help line, by calling 866-OUR-VOTE or visiting 866OURVOTE.ORG.