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This report is one of the first system­atic exam­in­a­tions of voter purging, a prac­tice—often contro­ver­sial—of remov­ing voters from regis­tra­tion lists in order to update state regis­tra­tion rolls. After a detailed study of the purge prac­tices of 12 states, Voter Purges reveals that elec­tion offi­cials across the coun­try are routinely strik­ing millions of voters from the rolls through a process that is shrouded in secrecy, prone to error, and vulner­able to manip­u­la­tion.


Intro­duc­tion

Voter regis­tra­tion lists, also called voter rolls, are the gate­way to voting. A citizen typic­ally cannot cast a vote that will count unless her name appears on the voter regis­tra­tion rolls. Yet state and local offi­cials regu­larly remove—or “purge”—cit­izens from voter rolls. In fact, thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia repor­ted purging more than 13 million voters from regis­tra­tion rolls between 2004 and 2006. Purges, if done prop­erly, are an import­ant way to ensure that voter rolls are depend­able, accur­ate, and up-to-date. Precise and care­fully conduc­ted purges can remove duplic­ate names, and people who have moved, died, or are other­wise ineligible.

Far too frequently, however, eligible, registered citizens show up to vote and discover their names have been removed from the voter lists. States main­tain voter rolls in an incon­sist­ent and unac­count­able manner. Offi­cials strike voters from the rolls through a process that is shrouded in secrecy, prone to error, and vulner­able to manip­u­la­tion.

While the lack of trans­par­ency in purge prac­tices precludes a precise figure of the number of those erro­neously purged, we do know that purges have been conduc­ted improp­erly before. In 2004, for example, Flor­ida planned to remove 48,000 “suspec­ted felons” from its voter rolls. Many of those iden­ti­fied were in fact eligible to vote. The flawed process gener­ated a list of 22,000 African Amer­ic­ans to be purged, but only 61 voters with Hispanic surnames, notwith­stand­ing Flor­id­a’s sizable Hispanic popu­la­tion. Under pres­sure from voting rights groups, Flor­ida ordered offi­cials to stop using the purge list. Although this purge was uncovered and mostly stopped before it was completed, other improper purges may go undetec­ted and unremedied.  

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. Here are a few examples from this year:

  • In Missis­sippi earlier this year, a local elec­tion offi­cial discovered that another offi­cial had wrongly purged 10,000 voters from her home computer just a week before the pres­id­en­tial primary.
  • In Muscogee, Geor­gia this year, a county offi­cial purged 700 people from the voter lists, supposedly because they were ineligible to vote due to crim­inal convic­tions. The list included people who had never even received a park­ing ticket.
  • In Louisi­ana, includ­ing areas hit hard by hurricanes, offi­cials purged approx­im­ately 21,000 voters, ostens­ibly for regis­ter­ing to vote in another state, without suffi­cient voter protec­tions. 

Find­ings

This report provides one of the first system­atic exam­in­a­tions of the chaotic and largely unseen world of voter purges. In a detailed study focus­ing on twelve states, we iden­ti­fied three prob­lem­atic prac­tices with voter purges across the coun­try:

Purges rely on error-ridden lists. States regu­larly attempt to purge voter lists of ineligible voters or duplic­ate regis­tra­tion records, but the lists that states use as the basis for purging are often riddled with errors. For example, some states purge their voter lists based on the Social Secur­ity Admin­is­tra­tion’s Death Master File, a data­base that even the Social Secur­ity Admin­is­tra­tion admits includes people who are still alive. Even though Hilde Stafford, a Wappingers Falls, NY resid­ent, was still alive and voted, the master death index lists her date of death as June 15, 1997. As another example, when a member of a house­hold files a change of address for herself in the United States Postal Service’s National Change of Address data­base, it some­times has the effect of chan­ging the addresses of all members of that house­hold. Voters who are eligible to vote are wrongly stricken from the rolls because of prob­lems with under­ly­ing source lists.

Voters are purged secretly and without notice. None of the states invest­ig­ated in this report stat­utor­ily require elec­tion offi­cials to provide advance public notice of a system­atic purge. Addi­tion­ally, with the excep­tion of regis­trants believed to have changed addresses, many states do not notify indi­vidual voters before purging them. In large part, states that do provide indi­vidu­al­ized notice do not provide such notice for all classes of purge candid­ates. For example, our research revealed that it is rare for states to provide notice when a regis­trant is believed to be deceased. Without proper notice to affected indi­vidu­als, an erro­neously purged voter will likely not be able to correct the error before Elec­tion Day. Without public notice of an impend­ing purge, the public will not be able to detect improper purges or to hold their elec­tion offi­cials account­able for more accur­ate voter list main­ten­ance.

Bad “match­ing” criteria leaves voters vulner­able to manip­u­lated purges. Many voter purges are conduc­ted with prob­lem­atic tech­niques that leave ample room for abuse and manip­u­la­tion. State stat­utes rely on the discre­tion of elec­tion offi­cials to identify regis­trants for removal. Far too often, elec­tion offi­cials believe they have “matched” two voters, when they are actu­ally look­ing at the records of two distinct indi­vidu­als with similar identi­fy­ing inform­a­tion. These cases of mistaken iden­tity cause eligible voters to be wrongly removed from the rolls. The infam­ous Flor­ida purge of 2000—­con­ser­vat­ive estim­ates place the number of wrong­fully purged voters close to 12,000—was gener­ated in part by bad match­ing criteria. Flor­ida regis­trants were purged from the rolls if 80 percent of the letters of their last names were the same as those of persons with crim­inal convic­tions. Those wrongly purged included Rever­end Willie D. Whit­ing Jr., who, under the match ing criteria, was considered the same person as Willie J. Whit­ing. Without specific guidelines for or limit­a­tions on the author­ity of elec­tion offi­cials conduct­ing purges, eligible voters are regu­larly made unne­ces­sar­ily vulner­able.

Insuf­fi­cient over­sight leaves voters vulner­able to manip­u­lated purges. Insuf­fi­cient over­sight permeates the purge process beyond just the issue of match­ing. For example, state stat­utes often rely on the discre­tion of elec­tion offi­cials to identify regis­trants for removal and to initi­ate removal proced­ures. In Wash­ing­ton, the fail­ure to deliver a number of delin­eated mail­ings, includ­ing precinct reas­sign­ment notices, ballot applic­a­tions, and regis­tra­tion acknow­ledg­ment notices, trig­gers the mail­ing of address confirm­a­tion notices, which then sets in motion the process for removal on account of change of address. Two Wash­ing­ton counties and the Secret­ary of State, however, repor­ted that address confirm­a­tion notices were sent when any mail was returned as undeliv­er­able, not just those delin­eated in state stat­ute. Since these stat­utes rarely tend to specify limit­a­tions on the author­ity of elec­tion offi­cials to purge regis­trants, insuf­fi­cient over­sight leaves room for elec­tion offi­cials to devi­ate from what the state law provides and may make voters vulner­able to poor, lax, or irre­spons­ible decision-making.


Policy Recom­mend­a­tions

No effect­ive national stand­ard governs voter purges; in fact, meth­ods vary from state to state and even from county to county. A voter’s risk of being purged depends in part on where in the state he or she lives. The lack of consist­ent rules and proced­ures means that this risk is unpre­dict­able and diffi­cult to guard against. While some vari­ation is inev­it­able, every Amer­ican should bene­fit from basic protec­tions against erro­neous purges.

Based on our review of purge prac­tices and stat­utes in a number of juris­dic­tions, we make the follow­ing policy recom­mend­a­tions to reduce the occur­rence of erro­neous purges and protect eligible voters from erro­neous purges. 

A. Trans­par­ency and Account­ab­il­ity for Purges

States should:

  • Develop and publish uniform, non-discrim­in­at­ory rules for purges.
  • Provide public notice of an impend­ing purge. Two weeks before any county-wide or state-wide purge, states should announce the purge and explain how it is to be conduc­ted. Indi­vidual voters must be noti­fied and given the oppor­tun­ity to correct any errors or omis­sions, or demon­strate eligib­il­ity before they are stricken from the rolls.
  • Develop and publish rules for an indi­vidual to prevent or remedy her erro­neous inclu­sion in an impend­ing purge. Eligible citizens should have a clear way to restore their names to voter rolls.
  • Stop using fail­ure to vote as a trig­ger for a purge. States should send address confirm­a­tion notices only when they believe a voter has moved.
  • Develop direct­ives and criteria with respect to the author­ity to purge voters. The removal of any record should require author­iz­a­tion by at least two offi­cials.
  • Preserve purged voter regis­tra­tion records.
  • Make purge lists publicly avail­able.

B. Strict Criteria for the Devel­op­ment of Purge Lists

States should:

  • Ensure a high degree of certainty that names on a purge list belong there. Purge lists should be reviewed multiple times to ensure that only ineligible voters are included.
  • Estab­lish strict criteria for match­ing voter lists with other sources.
  • Audit purge source lists. If purge lists are developed by match­ing names on the voter regis­tra­tion list to names from other sources like crim­inal convic­tion lists, the qual­ity and accur­acy of the inform­a­tion in these lists should be routinely “audited” or checked.
  • Monitor duplic­ate removal proced­ures. States should imple­ment uniform rules and proced­ures for elim­in­at­ing duplic­ate regis­tra­tions.

C. “Fail-Safe” Provi­sions to Protect Voters

States should ensure that:

  • No voter is turned away from the polls because her name is not found on the voter rolls. Instead, would-be voters should be given provi­sional ballots, to which they are entitled under the law.
  • Elec­tion work­ers are given clear instruc­tions and adequate train­ing as to HAVA’s provi­sional ballot­ing require­ments.

D. Univer­sal Voter Regis­tra­tion

States should:

  • Take the affirm­at­ive respons­ib­il­ity to build clean voter rolls consist­ing of all eligible citizens. Build­ing on other govern­ment lists or using other innov­at­ive meth­ods, states can make sure that all eligible citizens, and only eligible citizens, are on the voter rolls.
  • Ensure that voters stay on the voter rolls when they move within the state.
  • Provide a fail-safe mech­an­ism of Elec­tion Day regis­tra­tion for those indi­vidu­als who are missed or whose names are erro­neously purged from the voter rolls.