By Evelyn Li
Voter purges, part of routine “electoral housekeeping”, are supposed to remove people no longer eligible from voter rolls. Non-eligible voters can be those who have passed away, moved, suffer from “mental incapacitation”, or — in states with Jim Crow-era felon disenfranchisement laws — have felony convictions.
In recent years, the rate of voter purges has frighteningly risen, with states deleting hundreds of thousands of registrations. In the process, many eligible voters have been erroneously removed.
This has led many to rightly suggest that voter purges are a new frontier of voter suppression. Three states in particular give weight to this claim.
According to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, no state has done more than Georgia in recent years to make voting difficult. The state’s voter suppression was on full display in the highly competitive 2018 gubernatorial election between Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp. But less well-known is how aggressively state officials had been purging voters long before then. Between 2012 and 2016, when now-Governor Kemp was Secretary of State, Georgia purged 1.5 million voters — twice as many as were purged between 2008 and 2012.
This increase coincides with the 2013 Supreme Court case Shelby v. Holder, which eliminated the “preclearance coverage formula” from the Voting Rights Act. Preclearance was first used in 1965, when the newly-passed Voting Rights Act put counties with a history of discriminatory voting laws under extra review by the federal government. Specifically, these locations had to “preclear” any proposed changes to their voting laws with the Department of Justice — and any change that was deemed discriminatory would be rejected. But after the Supreme Court struck down that requirement in 2013, once-covered counties and states instituted a deluge of changes to their election laws. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, purge rates increased in previously covered counties across the U.S. by a median two percent — about two million more voters purged.
In 2017, more than 668,000 voter registrations in Georgia were canceled. This represented ten percent of registered Georgia voters and is possibly the largest single act of mass disenfranchisement in modern U.S. history. It was also the first year a voter purge in Georgia was carried out via an automated system, which cast more doubt on the entire process. The investigative journalist Greg Palast claims that he can prove that of the 400,000 who supposedly moved, 340,134 never moved and were therefore wrongly purged.
In 2018, Georgia purged 85,000 more voters. In October 2019, Georgia announced plans to purge more than 300,000 people- — an astonishing four percent of names on the voter rolls. The Atlanta-based voting rights organization Fair Fight Action publicly objected to the removal of about 120,000 of the 300,000. In response, the state restored a mere 22,000 names. Fair Fight Action then went to court over the remaining 100,000 or so contested names. Unfortunately, a federal judge sided with the state of Georgia in December. Those 100,000 names were kept on the purge list, and in total, approximately 280,000 voters were ultimately removed that year.
In Georgia, once someone is purged, if they do not re-register at least 30 days prior to an election, they are turned away at the polls.
The recent voter purges in Georgia were made possible by Supreme Court precedent set by a case concerning Ohio’s “use it or lose it” voter purging procedures. In Ohio, citizens who haven’t voted for two years are mailed a notice. If they fail to respond to this postcard and then also do not vote for four more years, they are purged. Critics contend that this violates the Help America Vote Act, passed in 2002, which expressly prevents states from removing people from voter rolls simply for not voting. However, officials in Ohio argued that, technically, voters were being purged for not replying to their mail, not for the failure to vote. In June of 2018, in Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, the Supreme Court ruled in Ohio’s favor.
Ohio purged more voters between 2011 and 2016 — -two million — than any other state, and the aggressive purges continue to this day. In October 2019, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose planned to drop 235,000 people from voter rolls, but, in an interesting twist, offered to release the list of to-be-purged names to voting rights groups, allowing them to see if they could find errors. Much to LaRose’s embarrassment, this crowdsourcing approach revealed that more than 40,000 of the names on his list were wrongly included. Among the list of names set to be removed was Jen Miller, the director of the League of Women Voters Ohio. Alarmingly, the purge disproportionately disenfranchised young people and Democrats: Nearly one out of three people purged was between the ages of 25 and 34, and Democrats out-numbered Republicans two to one (although those most affected were not registered to a party).
In light of these mistakes, LaRose said, “The system we have in place right now is prone to error-human error, vendor-error…It’s unacceptably messy.” This is a remarkable admission from an election official who engaged in depriving many of their precious right to vote.
Voter purges facilitated by computer systems also raised tensions in Wisconsin. In 2019, Wisconsin — a state with a history of error-filled purges — used a known-imprecise software to flag those on the voter rolls suspected of having changed their residences. Ozaukee County Judge Paul Malloy ordered that those who failed to respond to mailings sent based on the software’s findings within thirty days — 234,000 people, or seven percent of the electorate — would be purged. The Wisconsin Elections Commission, with its three Republican and three Democrat members in a deadlock over what to do, did not carry through with this order. The Democrats, who were the ones opposed to the purge, refused to proceed because estimates showed that nearly 90,000 of those on the list merely moved within the same towns and cities and were still eligible to vote.
In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump won Wisconsin by just 23,000 votes; the number of citizens ordered to be purged is ten times larger than that margin. And the purge would be more likely to affect those more likely to vote Democratic. Those on the purge list are disproportionately younger and low-income. Indeed, 55 percent of those on the purge list are located in municipalities won by Clinton. Milkwaukee and Madison, the state’s only urban, most diverse, and most Democratic areas, account for fourteen percent of the state’s registered voters but twenty-three percent of those on the purge list.
Fortunately, the Wisconsin Appeals Court recently overturned Judge Malloy’s ruling, and the voters set to be purged will officially stay registered, unless the Wisconsin Supreme Court steps in.
All would not be lost if the state Supreme Court did permit the purge to go through, though. Since Wisconsin has same day voter registration, people who come to the polls to find themselves not on the rolls can still re-register to vote on the spot. Still, having to register again increases the burden to vote, and many people do not bring the documents necessary to re-register to their polling location when they believe they are already registered. Moreover, during the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person voting may greatly decline, leaving less opportunity to fix registration problems.
With the presidential general election fast approaching, we have to keep monitoring the situation in Wisconsin, as well as stay vigilant about voter purges that are happening elsewhere. We must also assess the problems voter purges will cause during the COVID-19 pandemic, as mobility is minimized and avenues to fix a registration may remain limited.
A vote is the smallest but most fundamental unit of a democracy. It is a right we all have, as long as we safeguard it.
Evelyn Li is an Equal Citizens Fellow and incoming student at the University of Chicago