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Letter to Mississippi Secretary of State with Recommendations to Protect Against Improper Purges

The Brennan Center for Justice, along with the Mississippi Center for Justice, submitted a letter to the Mississippi Secretary of State urging the State to adopt clear and transparent protocols that promote accurate and accountable purges, facilitate easy voter reinstatement in the event of wrongful purges, and establish a reliable fail-safe to correct the problem at polls if needed.

Published: March 26, 2008

Down­load the Letter [PDF]

 

March 26, 2008

Hon. C. Delbert Hose­mann
Missis­sippi Secret­ary of State
401 Missis­sippi Street
Jack­son, MS 39201

RE: Missis­sippi Purge Proto­cols

 

Dear Secret­ary Hose­mann:

We write regard­ing the ten thou­sand or more persons registered to vote in Madison County, Missis­sippi who were purged from the voter rolls a week before the March 11th pres­id­en­tial primary. By all media accounts, your office denounced the timing of the purge and acted swiftly to rein­state these purged voters. We applaud these actions. In many ways, however, damage has been done notwith­stand­ing your efforts. Media revel­a­tions that an elec­tion offi­cial acting alone can purge voters from her home and outside public scru­tiny, as well as the spec­u­la­tion that the purge was polit­ic­ally motiv­ated, will under­mine public confid­ence in elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion.

Much can be learned from the Madison County purge, namely the need for clear and trans­par­ent proto­cols which promote accur­ate and account­able purges, proced­ures which facil­it­ate easy voter rein­state­ment in the event of wrong­ful purges, and a reli­able fail-safe to correct the prob­lem at the polls if needed. These three things will do much to protect voters and guard against error in the future. Given the likely high parti­cip­a­tion rates that can be expec­ted in the Novem­ber elec­tions, it is partic­u­larly import­ant that Missis­sippi have strong voter protec­tions built into its purge prac­tices. We strongly urge you to consider the specific recom­mend­a­tions set forth below. 

Proto­cols to Ensure Accur­acy & Account­ab­il­ity

Purges demand a high degree of accur­acy and account­ab­il­ity because they implic­ate the funda­mental right to vote and occur in a polit­ical context. Certain voter protec­tions would promote accur­acy and account­ab­il­ity, includ­ing:

  • Offi­cials author­ized to purge voter records should have a high degree of certainty that a name belongs to an ineligible person or is a duplic­ate record. If purge lists are developed by match­ing names on the voter regis­tra­tion list to names from other sources, for example, crim­inal convic­tion lists, direct­ives should specify the inform­a­tion suffi­cient for attain­ing a high degree of certainty that the correct person has been iden­ti­fied. An exact match on multiple fields, includ­ing at a minimum, last name, first name, middle name, prefix, suffix, date of birth, and address or driver’s license number should be required between the source list and the voter regis­tra­tion list before conclud­ing that a name should be purged from the voter regis­tra­tion list. Under no circum­stances is an exact match on full name and date of birth or full name and address alone suffi­cient.
  • The qual­ity of purge source lists should be routinely audited and reli­ance upon them adjus­ted accord­ingly. The Madison County purge was ostens­ibly based upon the return of undeliv­er­able jury notices, voter iden­ti­fic­a­tion cards, and other offi­cial mail, thus estab­lish­ing that returned mail alone is an inad­equate source for purging. Simil­arly, other states have repor­ted prob­lems with rely­ing on lists of deceased persons or change of address inform­a­tion from the postal service for identi­fy­ing regis­trants to be purged because of defi­cien­cies in those sources. Accord­ingly, any purge source list should be eval­u­ated to ensure that the inform­a­tion it provides is accur­ate, help­ful, and suffi­cient for the purpose of purging voters.
  • The removal of any voter’s record must be author­ized by at least two offi­cials. The statewide voter regis­tra­tion data­base should also have the design capa­city to include inform­a­tion on who author­ized the removal and on what grounds. The news media repor­ted that District 1 County Elec­tion Commis­sioner Sue Saute­meister acted on her own when she purged the Madison County voters, but no one person, acting alone, should be able to remove names from voter regis­tra­tion lists. The poten­tial for human error and the import­ance of what is at stake demands that the purge process have certain checks in place, such as requir­ing approval from at least two offi­cials before conduct­ing a purge.
  • Before any voter is removed from the rolls for any reason, he or she should be noti­fied and given the oppor­tun­ity to correct any errors or omis­sions or demon­strate eligib­il­ity. The National Voter Regis­tra­tion Act requires that all regis­trants suspec­ted of having changed addresses be afforded certain protec­tions, such as formal notice via forward­able mail and the oppor­tun­ity to respond, among others, before being purged. Extend­ing this protec­tion to all regis­trants for routine purges, i.e., those purges that occur when an indi­vidual regis­trant is iden­ti­fied as a candid­ate for removal, will reduce the purging of eligible persons and avoid complic­a­tions at the polls. 
  • Missis­sippi should provide public notice of any organ­ized county-wide or state-wide purge two weeks prior to the purge, and provide an explan­a­tion of how that purge will be conduc­ted. System­atic purges – those conduc­ted as part of a coordin­ated effort to clean up rolls involving numer­ous regis­trants – can result in large-scale disen­fran­chise­ment because of the number of regis­trants involved. Public notice encour­ages regis­trants to be vigil­ant and to follow-up after the purge to confirm that they are still on the voter rolls.

Voter Rein­state­ment Proto­cols

The Madison County purge, occur­ring shortly before the state’s pres­id­en­tial primary elec­tion, provides strong justi­fic­a­tion for proto­cols that facil­it­ate the rein­state­ment of erro­neously purged voters quickly and easily. Those proto­cols, at a minimum, should include:

  • The statewide voter regis­tra­tion data­base should have the design capa­city to keep the records of the names removed from the voter regis­tra­tion list. The status of voters should be changed in the data­base to reflect any adju­dic­a­tion of ineligib­il­ity, but the record, includ­ing voter history, should be main­tained so that any error is easily correc­ted.
  • The records of voters purged from the regis­tra­tion list, and the reason justi­fy­ing the removal, should be made avail­able for public inspec­tion and copy. The purge process should not occur behind closed doors and outside public scru­tiny. Voters and their advoc­ates must have ample inform­a­tion to identify regis­trants wrongly purged. Proto­cols should include protec­tions to ensure that sens­it­ive inform­a­tion, espe­cially that pertain­ing to domestic viol­ence surviv­ors, is not any more avail­able to state employ­ees, elec­tion offi­cials, and the public than is abso­lutely neces­sary to protect voting rights. 

Robust Fail-Safe Proced­ures

Pursu­ant to the Help Amer­ica Vote Act (“HAVA”), no registered voter should be turned away from the polls because her name is not found on the voter regis­tra­tion rolls. Instead, she should be provided a provi­sional ballot which will be coun­ted upon determ­in­a­tion by elec­tion offi­cials that it was cast by an eligible voter. Research shows, however, that in some states, provi­sional ballots are an inef­fect­ive fail-safe for a number of reas­ons, includ­ing improper denial of provi­sional ballots by elec­tion work­ers, and fail­ure to count provi­sional ballots. Because not all purge errors will be correc­ted prior to the elec­tion, purge proto­cols must include effect­ive fail-safe voting proced­ures, includ­ing:

  • Elec­tion work­ers should be given clear instruc­tions and adequate train­ing on the proper admin­is­tra­tion of HAVA’s provi­sional ballot­ing require­ments. Elec­tion work­ers should clearly under­stand that no voter should be denied a provi­sional ballot, all voters must be given the oppor­tun­ity to substan­ti­ate their eligib­il­ity to vote, all voters must be informed as to how they can substan­ti­ate their eligib­il­ity, all voters must be informed as to how they can determ­ine whether their ballot was coun­ted, and that the ballot must be coun­ted when a voter confirms that she is registered and eligible to vote.

The above proto­cols will provide much protec­tion to voters, and we urge their adop­tion in advance of the Novem­ber elec­tions. We are avail­able to discuss any of these recom­mend­a­tions in greater length with you should that be help­ful. Myrna Pérez can be reached at (212) 998–6284 or myrna.perez@nyu.edu, and Beth Orlansky can be reached at (601) 352–2269 or borlansky@m­s­center­for­justice.org.

Thank you in advance for your atten­tion to this very import­ant matter. 

 

Sincerely,

Myrna Pérez
Coun­sel, Bren­nan Center for Justice

Beth Orlansky
Staff Attor­ney, Missis­sippi Center for Justice