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.