The Messy Politics of Voter Purges

While federal law mandates a certain level of voter roll maintenance, states differ on how they manage their registration databases.

While federal law mandates a certain level of voter roll maintenance, states differ on how they manage their registration databases. Barbara Kalbfleisch/Shutterstock

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For the first time ever, Ohio this year lifted the veil on its voter purging system. It left the state astonished.

Secretary of State Frank LaRose, a Republican who has focused on modernizing the state’s elections system, announced in the months after he took office that he would, in compliance with state law, drop 235,000 people from voter rolls. Those people, he said, had either moved away, died or, mostly, failed to vote in six years.

The names were culled from a decentralized registration system in which Ohio’s 88 counties manage their own voter rolls and use one of four different election vendors to run their databases.

It’s a system that is ripe for errors, as officials would soon find out.

Other states are facing similar challenges. With a little over a year until the 2020 presidential election, many are still crafting ballot access policies that will shape their electorate. And decisions about voter list maintenance — one of the most essential bureaucratic duties of state election officials — received intense scrutiny in several states this year.

While federal law mandates a certain level of voter roll maintenance, states differ on how they manage their registration databases. Most state officials are just trying to keep voter lists clean, said David Becker, executive director and founder of the Center for Election Innovation and Research, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit.

“We all want to have lists that accurately reflect the electorate,” Becker said. “It’s not a bad thing to take thousands of people off a list if it’s the right thousands.”

Inevitably, however, dropping voters from the rolls inspires forceful political pushback, as many voting rights activists fear it is a form of voter suppression. They liken it to other largely Republican efforts to limit access, such as enacting voter ID laws, cutting early voting and reducing the number of polling places.

In the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, for example, voting rights activists criticized Georgia for purging 1.4 million voters over six years, along with other policies activists said targeted voters of color.

A Democratic-backed bill that passed the U.S. House earlier this year would, among other things, ban voter purging. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has not taken up the legislation, saying it’s a power grab by the Democratic Party.

The Brennan Center for Justice, which has called the voter purging process “often-flawed,” found that between 2014 and 2016, states removed nearly 16 million people from their rolls. Instead of purging people from lists, voting rights advocates argue, states should implement same-day voter registration or join interstate data-sharing networks like the Election Registration Information Center.

Still, states continue to implement stricter purging policies. In March, the Arizona Senate passed a Republican-backed bill that would remove voters from the state’s mail-in ballot list who fail to vote in two consecutive election cycles.

The bill’s backers said the legislation would allow for better election management, while opponents said it would suppress voter turnout. The bill currently sits in the state House.

In Oklahoma this April, state officials deleted the names of more than 88,000 voters who hadn’t voted in two elections and failed to respond to a postcard confirming their addresses. Prior to that, Oklahoma had removed 275,000 inactive voters since 2015.

And in California, state officials this year began the process of removing an estimated 5 million inactive registrations from its systems, complying with a settlement with the conservative group Judicial Watch.

The Ohio Experiment

In Ohio, Secretary of State LaRose began his new term this year with a crowdsourcing experiment. Instead of automatically removing all 235,000 names he’d been given to purge as part of regular list maintenance, he took a spreadsheet to voting rights groups in the state, letting them scour the data and see whether they could spot irregularities.

What the organizations found shocked officials and residents. More than 40,000 of those names had been wrongly added to the purge list by county election officials or by election software error.

“Thankfully, we caught those errors and corrected them,” LaRose told Stateline. “I spend a lot of time trying to get people registered to vote. The last thing I want to do is remove people from voter rolls unless absolutely necessary.”

While the experiment was seemingly a success, it left voting rights advocates, like Freda Levenson, legal director at the ACLU of Ohio, with lingering concerns. How could a state’s registration system produce such severe errors, she wondered? A secretary of state, she said, shouldn’t have to rely on crowdsourcing to effectively manage voter data.

“It’s really scary because this is the first list that we got to examine,” Levenson said. “What does it say about all those lists in the past? How many of those were wrong? How many were wrongfully purged?”

Politics in Kentucky

In Kentucky, the purging process has led to a lawsuit and years of political drama.

After the State Board of Elections placed 175,000 people on an inactive voter list, the Kentucky Democratic Party sued earlier this month, arguing the move could infringe on voting rights.

The inactive list preserved residents’ right to vote but flagged the names so poll workers could get up-to-date addresses. Voters then had to sign an affidavit ensuring they were who they said they were.

A county circuit judge agreed with Democrats, ruling the separate list and affidavit are “unnecessary and [have] a strong chilling effect on voters” in Kentucky. The judge, however, didn’t think the board was attempting to disenfranchise Kentucky voters.

Democratic Party spokeswoman Marisa McNee said there is a nationwide push to treat inactive voters aggressively and put obstacles in front of them.

“That can be a scary experience for a voter,” she said. “You become a different class of voter. We want to make sure that the voters are treated fairly and we’re not trading away people’s rights in the name of election security.”

Jared Dearing, the executive director of the State Board of Elections and a Democrat, said his priority is to ensure that every eligible voter can vote in the gubernatorial election next month.

“The list maintenance process is important,” he said, “and it is important as long as it balances the rights of the voters, the integrity of the system and the reputation of elections.”

Under the county judge’s ruling, inactive voters will be placed on the master voting list with an asterisk next to their names, alerting poll workers to get updated information.

This is far from the first time the state has had issues related to its voter rolls.

Over the past two years, the state has entered into a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over voter list maintenance, while Democratic Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes has faced several ethics complaints over use of those lists. The complaints culminated in the Republican-controlled legislature stripping Grimes of some of her powers.

Grimes said there was a coordinated effort to disenfranchise Kentucky voters. “This is an injustice to every Kentucky voter, to our democracy.”

Until her term ends in 2020, she said, she will continue speaking out against purging efforts.

Finding a Path Forward

States have the right to kick “inactive” voters off registration lists if officials send re-registration reminders, the U.S. Supreme Court decided last year. This decision came after voting rights groups sued then-Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted in 2016, saying the practice disenfranchised voters, many of whom were minorities. Husted, a Republican, said the law prevented voter fraud.

As part of a settlement agreement with the ACLU of Ohio in August, voters who were purged in the past eight years can cast provisional votes through 2022. The settlement resolved another aspect of the lawsuit, alleging Ohio didn’t notify voters that their registrations were in jeopardy.

On Election Day, affected voters can re-register. If a voter is incapacitated in some way, the local board of election will send one Democrat and one Republican to the voter’s home so they can cast a provisional ballot.

No one is happier about this settlement than André Washington, president of the Ohio A. Philip Randolph Institute, the African American unionist group that sued the state over voter purging in 2016. After three years of depositions and testimonies, Washington is relieved to see LaRose wanting to work with organizations like his.

“We want to help preserve democracy in Ohio and make sure all eligible voters cast a ballot,” Washington said. “I believe in extending the olive branch and giving everyone a fair shake. We couldn’t thank LaRose enough.”

LaRose doesn’t have plans to revisit the accuracy of previous purges, nor does he know whether his office will open the purging process like that again. But he knows the process can’t go back to the way it was.

“Transparency works,” he said. “I think our experience over the last few months of this has proven that out.”

State law is antiquated, he said, and needs an update. He is seeking to modernize the state’s election system through several pieces of legislation, including one that would set security standards for election vendors and another that would enact an opt-in voter registration system through the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Matt Vasilogambros is a staff writer for Stateline.

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