States purge millions of voters: report

States purge millions of voters: report
© Moriah Ratner

State and local election offices have purged more than 30 million voters from registration rolls in the past five years, according to a new report — and the number may be far higher.

The report from the Brennan Center for Justice found election officials removed at least 17 million voters from the rolls between 2016 and 2018, on top of the 16 million registrations that were canceled between 2014 and 2016.

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States routinely clean up voter lists and cancel registrations either because those voters moved to another state, died or have gone for long periods of time without casting a ballot.

But there are signs that some elections officials — particularly in areas with long histories of discrimination against minority voters — are acting more aggressively than others.

In a 2013 case known as Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court struck down Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which required counties or states with histories of discrimination to submit any proposed changes to voting rules or procedures to the federal Justice Department or a federal court, a process known as "preclearance."

Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision, counties covered by Section 5 purged voters at about the same rate as counties that were not required to seek federal permission.

But once those areas were free to make changes without federal approval, the Brennan Center report found, counties once covered by Section 5 purged voters at a higher rate than counties that were not required to seek preclearance.

The counties with histories of discrimination now purge about 10 percent of voters on their roles, while counties that did not require preclearance canceled about 7 percent of registrations.

“We as a country are purging more” voters, said Myrna Perez, director of the Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections Program. “It’s almost entirely driven by jurisdictions in states that were formerly covered by Section 5.”

Had preclearance counties cleaned up their roles at the same rates as non-preclearance counties, the Brennan researchers found as many as 1.1 million canceled registrations would still be active.

Data collected from the federal Election Assistance Commission through its biennial Election Administration and Voting Survey found major disparities between the states. Indiana purged more than 22 percent of the voters on its rolls between 2016 and 2018, while New Mexico ended just 1.4 percent of its voters.

Each state sets different rules by which it cleans up its rolls. Some require voters to cast a ballot in at least one election every few years, while others are more lax. Some states and counties send voters mail requiring them to respond in order to keep their registrations active. Others proactively contact voters by phone.

Some states that have high levels of voter purges — such as Wisconsin, Maine and Massachusetts — also allow voters to register to vote on Election Day itself, providing a backstop for voters whose registration might have been inadvertently canceled.

One state, North Dakota, does not require voters to register at all.

But voter purges often ensnare some voters whose registrations don’t actually qualify to be canceled. In rare cases, if two voters share a name and a date of birth, both registrations might be canceled where just one ought to be. If those voters live in states without same-day voter registration, they may find themselves out of luck at the ballot box.

“For years, the Voting Rights Act provided a layer of protection for voters,” Perez said. “We are seeing, time and time again, that voters are exposed, and I think this is one more way in which they are exposed.”