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Doug Chayka
Doug Chayka

Purges: A Growing Threat to the Right to Vote

Summary: Voter purges are an often-flawed process of cleaning up voter rolls by deleting names from registration lists. Done badly, they can prevent eligible people from casting a ballot that counts.

Published: July 20, 2018

Voter purges are an often-flawed process of clean­ing up voter rolls by delet­ing names from regis­tra­tion lists. Done badly, they can prevent eligible people from cast­ing a ballot that counts. This report exam­ines the grow­ing threat, and outlines steps every state can take to protect voters in Novem­ber and beyond. This builds on the Bren­nan Center’s 2008 report, Voter Purges.


On April 19, 2016, thou­sands of eligible Brook­lyn voters duti­fully showed up to cast their ballots in the pres­id­en­tial primary, only to find their names miss­ing from the voter lists. An invest­ig­a­tion by the New York state attor­ney general found that New York City’s Board of Elec­tions had improp­erly deleted more than 200,000 names from the voter rolls.

In June 2016, the Arkan­sas secret­ary of state provided a list to the state’s 75 county clerks suggest­ing that more than 7,700 names be removed from the rolls because of supposed felony convic­tions. That roster was highly inac­cur­ate; it included people who had never been convicted of a felony, as well as persons with past convic­tions whose voting rights had been restored.

And in Virginia in 2013, nearly 39,000 voters were removed from the rolls when the state relied on a faulty data­base to delete voters who allegedly had moved out of the common­wealth. Error rates in some counties ran as high as 17 percent.

These voters were victims of purges — the some­times-flawed process by which elec­tion offi­cials attempt to remove ineligible names from voter regis­tra­tion lists. When done correctly, purges ensure the voter rolls are accur­ate and up-to-date. When done incor­rectly, purges disen­fran­chise legit­im­ate voters (often when it is too close to an elec­tion to rectify the mistake), caus­ing confu­sion and delay at the polls.

Ahead of upcom­ing midterm elec­tions, a new Bren­nan Center invest­ig­a­tion has examined data for more than 6,600 juris­dic­tions that report purge rates to the Elec­tion Assist­ance Commis­sion and calcu­lated purge rates for 49 states.

We found that between 2014 and 2016, states removed almost 16 million voters from the rolls, and every state in the coun­try can and should do more to protect voters from improper purges.

Almost 4 million more names were purged from the rolls between 2014 and 2016 than between 2006 and 2008. This growth in the number of removed voters repres­en­ted an increase of 33 percent — far outstrip­ping growth in both total registered voters (18 percent) and total popu­la­tion (6 percent).

Most disturb­ingly, our research suggests great cause for concern that the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder (which ended federal “preclear­ance,” a Voting Rights Act provi­sion that was enacted to apply extra scru­tiny to juris­dic­tions with a history of racial discrim­in­a­tion) has had a profound and negat­ive impact:

For the two elec­tion cycles between 2012 and 2016, juris­dic­tions no longer subject to federal preclear­ance had purge rates signi­fic­antly higher than juris­dic­tions that did not have it in 2013. The Bren­nan Center calcu­lates that 2 million fewer voters would have been purged over those four years if juris­dic­tions previ­ously subject to federal preclear­ance had purged at the same rate as those juris­dic­tions not subject to that provi­sion in 2013.

In Texas, for example, one of the states previ­ously subject to federal preclear­ance, approx­im­ately 363,000 more voters were erased from the rolls in the first elec­tion cycle after Shelby County than in the compar­able midterm elec­tion cycle imme­di­ately preced­ing it. And Geor­gia purged twice as many voters — 1.5 million — between the 2012 and 2016 elec­tions as it did between 2008 and 2012.

Mean­while, the Justice Depart­ment has abdic­ated its assigned role in prevent­ing overly aggress­ive purges. In fact, the Justice Depart­ment has sent letters to elec­tion offi­cials inquir­ing about their purging prac­tices — a move seen by many as laying the ground­work for claims that some juris­dic­tions are not suffi­ciently aggress­ive in clear­ing names off the rolls.

This new report follows an extens­ive analysis of this issue in a 2008 Bren­nan Center report entitled Voter Purges. In that report, we uncovered evid­ence that elec­tion admin­is­trat­ors were purging people based on error-ridden prac­tices, that voters were purged secretly and without notice, and that there were limited protec­tions against purges. In this year’s report, we discovered that little about purge prac­tices has improved and that a number of things have, in fact, gotten worse.

This study also found:

  • In the past five years, four states have engaged in illegal purges, and another four states have imple­men­ted unlaw­ful purge rules.
    Federal stand­ards for purges were set in the 1993 National Voter Regis­tra­tion Act (NVRA). Since 2013, Flor­ida, New York, North Caro­lina, and Virginia have conduc­ted illegal purges. Moreover, Bren­nan Center research has uncovered that four states (Alabama, Arizona, Indi­ana, and Maine) have writ­ten policies that by their terms viol­ate the NVRA and provide for illegal purges. Alabama, Indi­ana, and Maine have policies for using data from a data­base called the Inter­state Voter Regis­tra­tion Crosscheck Program (Crosscheck) to imme­di­ately purge voters without provid­ing the notice and wait­ing period required by federal law (Indi­ana’s prac­tice has been put on hold by a federal court). Arizona regu­la­tions permit Crosscheck purges during the 90 days prior to an elec­tion, a period during which federal law prohib­its large-scale purges. These eight states are home to more than a quarter of registered voters across the nation.
  • States use inac­cur­ate inform­a­tion.
    Although states have improved the way in which they use data to purge the voter rolls in some respects, several juris­dic­tions rely on faulty data to flag poten­tially ineligible voters. And some of the new sources of inform­a­tion that have come into wide­spread use since our 2008 report, such as Crosscheck, are espe­cially prob­lem­atic.

  • A new coterie of activ­ist groups is press­ing for aggress­ive purges.
    Most purging litig­a­tion brought by private litig­ants before 2008 conten­ded that voter removal efforts were overly aggress­ive. Today, a differ­ent group of plaintiffs is haul­ing elec­tion offi­cials into court, claim­ing that purging prac­tices in their juris­dic­tions are not suffi­ciently zeal­ous.

This report makes the follow­ing recom­mend­a­tions:

  • Enforce the NVRA’s protec­tions.
    The NVRA, one of the major federal laws govern­ing how states and local­it­ies can conduct purges, permits voters and civic groups to sue elec­tion offi­cials if they viol­ate the law’s provi­sions. Monit­or­ing juris­dic­tions to ensure they are comply­ing with the NVRA — and bring­ing litig­a­tion when neces­sary — is espe­cially import­ant in an era when elec­tion offi­cials are under pres­sure to mount aggress­ive purges.

  • States should set purging stand­ards that provide even more protec­tions than the NVRA.
    The NVRA sets out federal stand­ards for purges and requires that voters removed from the rolls for certain reas­ons be given noti­fic­a­tion. But these are minimum guidelines. States can and should do more to protect against disen­fran­chise­ment caused by improper purges — for example, provid­ing public and indi­vidual notice before purging names from the rolls.

  • Pass auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion.
    Auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion is a popu­lar reform that minim­izes regis­tra­tion errors and allows for easy updates, making rolls more accur­ate and current.