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Surprise: You’re off the voter list

The Atlanta Journal Constitution reports on voter purges and their effect, focusing on data from the Brennan Center’s Voter Purge Report.

Published: October 3, 2008

 Article also available here.

 Charles Coxwell Jr. hasn’t voted recently.

To be exact, the 2004 presidential election was the last time.

Still, he was planning to vote Nov. 4. So the 43-year-old Acworth man was surprised to learn that he’d been purged from Cobb County’s voter rolls.

“That’s kind of weird,” Coxwell said. “Why would they do that?”

The state regularly removes the names of voters who have died, committed felonies or relocated. But critics say qualified voters like Coxwell, who temporarily moved to another Georgia county, sometimes get expelled in the process.

Just days remain before Monday’s deadline to register to vote and be eligible to vote in the presidential election — or re-register, if necessary. Watchdog groups worry some Georgians might arrive at their precincts only to find their votes will not count if they have been removed from the rolls.

State officials won’t say how many names have been purged from the voter rolls in the past year. Purging is a routine process mandated by law meant to ensure registrars’ records are up to date, thereby reducing the likelihood of ineligible voters casting ballots.

But Helen Butler, executive director of Coalition for the People’s Agenda, has voiced concerns about problems that purging creates. Last year, after 274,000 names were removed from the rolls, Butler criticized elections officials for not doing enough to notify affected voters.

Secretary of State’s Office spokesman Matt Carrothers said numerous written notifications are sent before someone is removed for “no contact,” or not voting in four general elections.

But Coxwell said he did not get a letter notifying him of his change in status. He learned he was no longer eligible to vote when contacted by a reporter who had compared several voter registration lists.

Coxwell’s problem started when he changed his driver’s license to reflect his temporary address. He never meant to change his voting registration. Unbeknownst to him, the Department of Drivers Services had notified the local elections office.

State law requires the voting rolls to be updated every other year.

Despite numerous requests, state elections officials would not identify the voters whose names were removed nor say how many people were affected in the latest round. Carrothers said the information wouldn’t be available until after the upcoming election.

Voter list purging — which the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office calls “removing” names — has been controversial nationwide, especially this election year when the presidential race is tight and there is such a push to sign up new voters. Critics worry there’s a concerted effort to remove voters for partisan purposes.

There is nothing to suggest any such effort in Georgia.

A study released by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law this week criticized voter roll purges in several states, including Georgia.

In Columbus, an official purged 700 people from the voter lists, according to the study, because they were ineligible to vote due to criminal convictions. The list included people who had never even received a parking ticket, the Brennan Center said.

In Mississippi, a local election worker mistakenly purged 10,000 voters from her home computer just a week before the presidential primary, according to the center’s report.

And in Wisconsin, some voters discovered they had been purged after they tried to cast ballots in September’s primary election.

“The secret and inconsistent manner in which purges are conducted make it difficult, if not impossible, to know exactly how many voters are stricken from voting lists erroneously. And when purges are made public, they often reveal serious problems,” according to the report.

There are nearly 5.5 million Georgia voters, with almost 406,400 of them new voters who registered by the end of September.

Carrothers stressed that “no voter is turned away from the polls. They can vote a provisional ballot.” But the office agreed those ballots are not counted if the names are not on the list of registered voters.

Attorney Charlie Lester, who is head of the legal committee for the Georgia chapter of Voter Protection, said, “There are any number of possibilities of mistakes, so it seems this is something everybody needs to check regularly to see that their name has not been removed.

“If there has been a mistake, it can be corrected,” he said.