Ending Georgia’s Improper Voter Roll Purges: A Policy Analysis

Understanding the Current Issue

Voter suppression in general has had a long political history in Georgia, dating back to when the state passed one of the nation’s first voter ID laws in 2005. Traditionally, Republicans support such policies, and Democrats oppose them. Besides ID laws, Georgia has also historically cleaned out its voter rolls every other year by sending out purge notices. However, this year’s mailing of notices coincided with President Trump’s commission on “voter fraud,” which deepened the issue’s political and partisan undertones. Even though simply being sent a purge notice does not irreversibly cancel one’s registration, it serves as an intimidation tactic more than anything. Such policies that decrease accessibility to the polls usually arise out of conservative leadership, though it is unclear whether or not such policies are enacted with the intention of disenfranchising certain groups.

When examining the effects of voter roll purges, it is imperative to consider four major stakeholders:

  • Voters — specifically low-education, low-income voters. Though routine voter roll purges may seem harmless and neutral on the surface, they disproportionately target low-education voters who, first, are probably not aware of the county moving policy in the first place, and second, do not fully understand the consequences of the purge notice and how to resolve it. Whether intentional or not, purge notices confuse and intimidate voters with bureaucratic obstacles in the registration process. Voters affected with the notices have a clear interest in wanting to vote, but sadly, little influence on policymakers (the main decision-makers).
  • Politicians/policymakers — the stakeholders with heavy decision-making power. While politicians’ interests are usually more clear with other voting restriction laws, it is difficult to assume their intentions with the voter roll purge policy. The fact that the most recent voter purge coincided with Trump’s federal election meeting could point to an interest in maintaining party unity.
  • Secretary of State — the Secretary of State’s office has the most power in enacting and executing specific voting policies such as this one. Again, though the purge notices have an effect of disadvantaging low-education voters, it is unclear whether or not that was the specific intention. Like politicians in general, SoS may have an interest in maintaining the party’s status quo.
  • Progressive nonprofit & civil rights groups — have a significant amount of influence, as they seek to fight voter suppression tactics through lawsuits. The ACLU of Georgia is actually leading the charge against the purge notice policy and intends to bring a lawsuit if the SoS’s office does not rectify the purges.

It is also important to take into account educational and cultural perspectives associated with the current policy. Voters’ lack of knowledge is a major hindrance in terms of educational perspectives. Most voters are not aware of the rules surrounding moving and voter registration, nor are they informed on the discrepancies between movement within vs. outside the original county. When (illegal) purge notices are sent to voters who move within the same county, for example, they are unsure of why and intimidated from showing up to the voting booth. On the other hand, many GOP lawmakers are of the strong cultural perspective that such policies help to combat “voter fraud” and maintain the integrity of elections.

Interestingly enough, the current roll purging policy is not particularly convenient. Clearing the voter rolls is a huge undertaking. The mailing taking place on the same day throughout the state. DeKalb County alone this year mailed 33,467 notices, Cobb County 29,588, and Fulton County more than 48,900. Officials with the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office said a total of 383,487 notices went out.1 (Though Georgia tries to clear up voter rolls every two years, it is unclear how much time actually goes into compiling lists and mailing out the letters.)

Fortunately, this policy is actually fairly transferrable. Because much of the “voter purge” focuses on sending out notices, the policy could be easily flipped to instead mail out clarification/reconciliation letters to those affected, along with publishing educational information tailored to the counties that have purged the most voters.

Voting rights groups repeatedly have challenged states’ past registration purges, including those in Ohio, Kansas and Iowa, on the basis that minority, low-income, young and homeless voters have been disproportionately purged. In Florida, Kansas, Iowa and Harris County, Texas, courts have ordered elections officials to restore thousands of voters to the rolls or to halt purges they found discriminatory.2

While not much has been done to solve the specific voter purge in Georgia, The Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law successfully sued the Secretary of State’s office for another voting policy, the exact-match rule. It seems like lawsuits are the best way to enact policy change in the voting rights arena.3

Analyzing the Solution

As mentioned in the previous installment, the ACLU of Georgia recommends six steps, some of which are modified here as a policy solution for the counties to adapt. This policy change includes:

  • Immediately updating voter lists by a set deadline when voters change residence within the same county
  • Sending a follow-up-letter to past purge-notice-recipients explaining the error and assuring that they are still active
  • Informing future intra-county movers ahead of time that their registration information will be updated with the latest address and their new polling place
  • Allowing voters to verify new address — -while emphasizing that a) there will be no consequence if they do not respond, and b) that they do not have to take any further action to maintain their registration.

From an economic standpoint, this policy change will cost the Secretary of State’s office more in terms of having to automatically update the voter lists when someone moves within the same county. The state will have to invest in better software and perhaps a cross-checking system. The funds that were previously funneled towards identifying inter-county movers and sending purge notices will now be diverted towards mailing correction letters and (eventually) informational notices assuring future movers that their information will be automatically updated.

We must also, again, take political history and attitudes into consideration. Most progressive politicians and groups are opposed to restricting accessibility to the polls, while conservatives view strict measures as necessary. The debate over voter roll purges is no different. Civil rights groups (namely the ACLU) have been instrumental in pushing for courts to strike down the purge policy; meanwhile, GOP politicians, including Secretary of State Brian Kemp, advocate purge notices as necessary for maintaining a clean voter roll and preventing fraud. Similarly, progressive groups support changes to the status quo such as this one (holding the government responsible for updating addresses and informing voters), while conservative groups wish to maintain the status quo.

Conveniently, the stakeholders are similar to the ones for the status quo:

  • Voters — specifically low-education, low-income voters. Since these voters are most heavily impacted by illegal voter purges, they have a strong interest in supporting this policy change. If the Secretary of State sends correction letters to movers who were served purge notices, this would clear up a lot of confusion and comfort those who may have been intimidated. Much of the policy change focuses on informing voters, which especially plays to the interests of voters from low-educational backgrounds who need the clarification.
  • Politicians/policymakers — still the stakeholders with heavy decision-making power. Since policymakers in power are the ones who are performing the voter roll purge, they have an interest in maintaining the status quo. It is safe to assume that GOP-majority politicians would be resistant to policy changes or departing from the party’s expectations at the federal level.
  • Secretary of State — any county that purges their rolls are acting at the behest of the Secretary of State’s office. Like politicians in general, the Secretary of State probably has an interest in maintaining the party’s status quo. Regardless of their reasons for enacting suppressive policies, the SoS’s office most likely would not want to see their policies altered. Furthermore, it is safe to assume that the office has little incentive in putting forth the effort to reverse their purge notices and publish educational materials.
  • Progressive nonprofit & civil rights groups — would provide strong support for this policy change, as this is their ultimate goal in bringing the Secretary of State to court. This policy change itself is heavily based off the ACLU’s recommendations, so one can reasonably assume that the group would fully endorse the policy’s execution.

Like with the status quo, perspectives associated with this policy change varies widely between party and ideology. Conservative groups most likely fear the change, as it dismantles a system put in place that they believe is necessary to prevent fraud. Liberals, on the other hand, view the change as imperative to increasing voter accessibility and transparency. From a social perspective, the policy change might cause some discord, since it involves sending out correction notices to undo purge notices (it is always messy to manually backtrack). Thus, it is especially important to make the wording and implementation of these correction notices as comprehensible and transparent as possible.

Fortunately, the Secretary of State’s office already has a system in place to create mailing lists (that they have been using to send purge notices). For the correction letters, then, it should be fairly straightforward to use this same mailing list. The hardest part of implementing the policy would be developing a schedule for informing future intra-county movers ahead of time that their registration information will be automatically updated. Ideally, the government would update the voters’ information as soon as the voter changed his/her address with the DMV (requiring no further action on the voter’s part). However, there needs to be a timeline with deadlines by which the government should have a) updated the voter’s info, and b) sent a confirmation notice to the voter informing him/her that they have done so.

If civil rights groups are successful in court, the policy change could ideally be implemented immediately afterwards, starting with the correction letters (to voters who were previously sent purge notices). However, it is unclear how long the ACLU’s most recent lawsuit against the Secretary of State will take to play out.

References

1 Torres, K. (2017, July 23). Georgia effort to clean up state’s voter rolls underway. Politically Georgia. Retrieved from http://www.myajc.com/news/state--regional-govt--politics/georgia-effort-clean-state-voter-rolls-underway/rpAkxxDXJ2LlaOXXJfioxH/

2 Holstege, S. ( 2016, August 24). Do Voter Purges Discriminate Against the Poor and Minorities? NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/do-voter-purges-discriminate-against-poor-minorities-n636586

6 Torres, K. (2017, July 23). Georgia effort to clean up state’s voter rolls underway. Politically Georgia. Retrieved from http://www.myajc.com/news/state--regional-govt--politics/georgia-effort-clean-state-voter-rolls-underway/rpAkxxDXJ2LlaOXXJfioxH/

3 Holstege, S. ( 2016, August 24). Do Voter Purges Discriminate Against the Poor and Minorities? NBC News. Retrieved from https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/do-voter-purges-discriminate-against-poor-minorities-n636586