“Voting is a right, but it is also a privilege. Not everyone in the United States may vote. As a general matter, only those who have reached a certain age, are mentally competent and are American citizens, are allowed to vote.”
– Roger Clegg, JD, President, and General Counsel at the Center for Equal Opportunity (May 7, 2007)
One of the hallmarks of a democratic society is the right to free elections where eligible voters may cast their ballots to elect legal representatives.
On election day, the first thing a voter must do, once inside the vote center, is to present a valid ID to match against the poll book, a list of eligible voters for that jurisdiction. If the would-be voter’s name doesn’t appear on the qualification rolls, it often comes as an unpleasant surprise.
State and local officials regularly remove (purge) citizens from voter rolls to ensure that voter rolls are accurate and up-to-date. A person who has moved from California to New York may no longer cast a ballot in the Golden State. Duplicate names are also eliminated, as are the names of the deceased.
Periodic voter roll updates are mandated by law. Between 2004 and 2006, 39 states and the District of Columbia reportedly purged more than 13 million voters from their registration rolls.
Former Republican President George W. Bush signed the 2002 congressional Help America Vote Act (HAVA) into law. That law was passed after the controversial “hanging chad” 2000 presidential election which saw the contending Democratic candidate Al Gore defeated by a very narrow margin after a series of Florida recounts.
One of the provisions of the new law was that every state must allow voters who show up in good faith on election day but do not appear on the registration rolls, to cast a provisional paper ballot. These ballots count after the polls close if further research verifies that the voter truly is eligible.
In the 2004 election, 1.6 million provisional ballots were cast, of which more than 1 million were counted after verification of eligibility.
The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School is a non-partisan law and public policy institute that focuses on the fundamental issues of democracy and justice. A new Brennan Center report, based on federal Election Assistance Commission (EAC) data, revealed that between 2016 and 2018, at least 17 million voters were purged nationwide.
That number was about the same as for the period 2014-2016 but much higher than that seen between 2006 and 2008.
Every two years, the EAC conducts a survey with election officials across the U.S. called the Election Administration and Voting Survey (EAVS). Jurisdictions are asked to provide voter registration information including the number of new registrations between the federal elections, the number of ballots cast on election day, the number of open polling sites, and how many voters were purged from the registration rolls.
Completing the EAVS is voluntary. In 2018, some jurisdictions in Texas and Alabama did not report their purge numbers. North Dakota has no voter registration and therefore no count of voter purges.
Purge problems can surface in large jurisdictions such as California and Texas where many people have the same name and birthdate. Sometimes, the wrong person is removed from the rolls accidentally.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law during the height of the civil rights movement on August 6 of that year to prohibit racial discrimination in voting. Since then, Congress has amended the Act five times to expand its protections for American minorities.
The 2013 Supreme Court ruling Shelby County v. Holder overturned a key provision of the Voting Rights Act that required federal oversight for voter registration purges in counties and election precincts with a history of racial discrimination:
“Under Section 5 of the landmark civil rights law, jurisdictions with a history of discrimination must seek pre-approval of changes in voting rules that could affect minorities. This process, known as ‘preclearance,’ blocks discrimination before it occurs.”
No longer would counties known for voter discrimination based on race have to obtain preclearance from the U.S. Justice Department, paving the way for liberal and erroneous purges intended to prevent the casting of minority ballots on election day.
The 2019 Brennan Center analysis confirmed that voter purges were 40 percent higher in places known for racial oppression and voter suppression than in places that consistently safeguard voting rights.
Ohio purged more than 182,858 names from its voter registration rolls (five counties were not included in that count). Some of the voters were removed from the list of eligibles because they had not voted in six years and are considered inactive. Ohioans may check their voting status on the state’s Fresh Start online searchable database.
In July 2017, more than 500,000 people were purged from Georgia’s voter rolls – 107,000 of them had not voted in previous elections and they failed to respond to mailed notices from the state.
Fueling the problem is the fact that each state may impose its own rules for housekeeping the voter registration rolls. Three states with high voter purge rates – Wisconsin, Maine, and Massachusetts – let voters register on Election Day to ensure that justice will be served at the ballot box.