9. We Need More Aggressive Purges to Clear Out All the Ineligible Voters
The Claim: Aggressive voter purges are needed because voter rolls are infected with large numbers of ineligible voters.
The Truth: Claims that voter rolls are “dirty” are overblown.
- Many of the claims that jurisdictions have more voters on the rolls than eligible people in the jurisdiction appear to be based on a rudimentary comparison between U.S. Census population data, which is not designed to estimate the eligible voting age population, and county election statistics, which are measured at “book closing” — the period immediately before an election, when registration rates are at their high-water mark. Federal courts have rejected this approach, and many of the targeted jurisdictions have rebutted these claims.
- Furthermore, some of these claims have included “inactive” voters — those who have been flagged for potential removal from the rolls — in the count of registered voters. Federal law, sensibly, requires jurisdictions to keep these voters on the rolls for two election cycles before purging them. This is a feature, not a bug: it helps to ensure that flagged voters have actually changed addresses or otherwise become ineligible.
The Truth, Moreover: Claims of rampant inaccuracies in the voter rolls are part of a sustained pressure campaign to push election officials to purge their rolls more aggressively. But aggressive purges can result in eligible voters being improperly kicked off the rolls.
- For example, officials and activists have pushed the use of interstate data-matching systems, including one system administered by the Kansas secretary of state, to identify voters registered in more than one state. But the Kansas system has proven deeply flawed, in part because it matches voters using only their first name, last name, and date of birth, which is likely to produce false positives in groups as large as statewide or multistate registration lists. (In December 2019, Kansas suspended the system, as part of a court settlement.)
- There has also been an uptick in state efforts to purge noncitizens, but the data states are using as the basis for these purges has not been consistently reliable. Texas’s disastrous 2019 noncitizen purge attempt illustrates the point.
The Consequences: Purge numbers are growing.
- The Brennan Center has documented a dramatic surge in purge rates since the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 2013.
- Counties that were previously covered by Section 5 of the VRA — that is, counties in states with a history of voting discrimination — have purged people from the rolls at much higher rates than other counties have. The median purge rate between 2016 and 2018 in jurisdictions previously covered by Section 5 was 40 percent higher than the purge rate in jurisdictions that were not covered.
The Consequences, Moreover: Improper purges can disenfranchise eligible voters, cause undue delays at the polls, and heighten distrust in our election systems.
- In 2016, the New York City Board of Elections purged hundreds of thousands of voters with little notice to voters or the public. On Election Day, thousands of voters showed up at the polls only to find that their registrations had been deleted.
- In 2019, the Texas secretary of state announced that there were 95,000 noncitizens on the state’s voter rolls, including 58,000 who had voted illegally. This claim, which was based on state driver’s license data, was false. A federal court halted purges based on the faulty information and the secretary of state eventually resigned over the debacle, but not before President Trump amplified the initial false claim, sowing distrust in the elections process.
- As noted above, claims that several Iowa counties had more voters on their rolls than eligible voters in the county also appeared ahead of the Democratic Caucus in January 2020. These claims were quickly debunked, but the confusion around the caucus vote counting gave them new life and gave partisans new opportunities to question the integrity of the election.