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Voter Purges: The Risks in 2018

Summary: Activist groups and some state officials have mounted alarming campaigns to purge voters from registration lists without adequate safeguards. If successful, these efforts could lead to a massive number of eligible, registered voters losing their right to cast a ballot in 2018.

  • Jonathan Brater
Published: February 27, 2018

Voter purges — the often contro­ver­sial prac­tice of remov­ing voters from regis­tra­tion lists in order to keep them up to date — are poised to be one of the biggest threats to the ballot in 2018. Activ­ist groups and some state offi­cials have moun­ted alarm­ing campaigns to purge voters without adequate safe­guards. If success­ful, these efforts could lead to a massive number of eligible, registered voters losing their right to cast a ballot this fall.

Prop­erly done, efforts to clean up voter rolls are import­ant for elec­tion integ­rity and effi­ciency. Done care­lessly or hast­ily, such efforts are prone to error, the effects of which are borne by voters who may show up to vote only to find their names miss­ing from the list.

Many of the voter purge efforts examined by the Bren­nan Center for Justice here not only risk disen­fran­chise­ment, but also run afoul of federal legal require­ments. These efforts point to a decent­ral­ized, hard-to-trace mode of voter suppres­sion — one that is perhaps less sweep­ing than voter ID, proof-of-citizen­ship, and similar legis­la­tion enacted by 23 states over the last decade. But the effect of voter purges can be equally devast­at­ing.

One example? In 2016, Arkansas’ secret­ary of state sent county clerks the names of more than 50,000 people who were supposedly ineligible to vote because of felony convic­tions. Those county clerks began to remove voters without any notice. The state later discovered the purge list  was riddled with errors: it included at least 4,000 people who did not have felony convic­tions. And among those on the list who once had a disqual­i­fy­ing convic­tion, up to 60 percent of those indi­vidu­als were Amer­ic­ans who were eligible to vote because they had their voting rights restored back to them.

Counties scrambled to fix the mistakes right before a school board race and weeks before the pres­id­en­tial elec­tion, but clerks admit­ted they would have a hard time restor­ing all the voters to the rolls in time. “There’s an old saying that you can’t unring a bell, and that’s where we are,” said one offi­cial, Pulaski County Clerk Larry Crane.

In 2014 and 2015, the Brook­lyn Board of Elec­tions purged more than 110,000 voters who had not voted since 2008, and another 100,000 who had supposedly changed their addresses. There was no public announce­ment that this would be done. Some of those voters were given a paltry three weeks’ notice before removal, and thou­sands of voters showed up at the 2016 primary elec­tions and discovered that their names were miss­ing from the rolls. After a lawsuit, the Board of Elec­tions restored regis­tra­tion records — but by that point, the voters had missed their oppor­tun­ity to cast a ballot in the primary.

A decade ago, the Bren­nan Center published the first compre­hens­ive exam­in­a­tion of voter purges. We found a patch­work of incon­sist­ent, error-prone prac­tices for remov­ing voters from the rolls. These prob­lem­atic purges have occurred for a vari­ety of reas­ons. Elec­tion offi­cials depend on unre­li­able sources to determ­ine that indi­vidu­als are no longer eligible to vote, use poor meth­od­o­logy to compare the voter regis­tra­tion list with sources of poten­tially ineligible indi­vidu­als, conduct voter removal without notice, or fail to provide appro­pri­ate protec­tions to voters before remov­ing them.

There is reason to believe prob­lems will be espe­cially acute and wide­spread in 2018. Here are four voter purge vulner­ab­il­it­ies to watch out for this year.

Voter Purges: The Risks in 2018 by The Bren­nan Center for Justice on Scribd