…and why is it a problem?
Voter purging is a process that, when conducted improperly, becomes a tool of voter suppression.
Voter purging is a process that helps states and counties maintain up-to-date voter rolls and data by canceling registrations for voters who are no longer eligible, including those who have died or moved out of state.
When does voter purging become problematic?
When properly and transparently executed, voter purges keep voter lists accurate and up-to-date. When conducted improperly, however, it can remove eligible voters from the rolls – and those voters may not be notified in time to re-register for an upcoming election. This process can therefore disenfranchise eligible voters from local, state, and national elections. A 2019 Brennan Center report explains:
States rely on faulty data that purport to show that a voter has moved to another state. Oftentimes, these data get people mixed up. In big states like California and Texas, multiple individuals can have the same name and date of birth, making it hard to be sure that the right voter is being purged when perfect data are unavailable.
Troublingly, minority voters are more likely to share names than white voters, potentially exposing them to a greater risk of being purged. Voters often do not realize they have been purged until they try to cast a ballot on Election Day — after it’s already too late. If those voters live in a state without election day registration, they are often prevented from participating in that election.Voter Purge Rates Remain High, Analysis Finds – The Brennan Center, 2019
Political parties and partisan groups have used wrongful voter purging to disenfranchise voters and manipulate elections for decades. The Voter Rights Act of 1965 sought to address these practices via nationwide legislation and enforcement. The New York Times’ comprehensive look at the VRA explains:
It eliminated literacy tests and other Jim Crow tactics, and — in a key provision called Section 5 — required North Carolina and six other states with histories of black disenfranchisement to submit any future change in statewide voting law, no matter how small, for approval by federal authorities in Washington. No longer would the states be able to invent clever new ways to suppress the vote…By 1968, just three years after the Voting Rights Act became law, black registration had increased substantially across the South, to 62 percent…In 2008, for the first time, black turnout was nearly equal to white turnout, and Barack Obama was elected the nation’s first black president.A Dream Undone – The New York Times, 2015
But suppressive purging practices ramped up after a pivotal Supreme Court Decision in 2013.
Shelby County v. Holder invalidated a formula used to define which areas fell under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5 required some jurisdictions, mostly in the South, to obtain federal permission before changing voting laws.
Shelby County v. Holder made it easier for states with a history of voter discrimination to utilize voter purging and other voter suppression tactics.
In the lead up to the critical 2020 elections, voter purging activity is ticking up again.
As shown in the graphic below, the Brennan Center found that, after 2013, “purge rates ticked up in parts of the country that were covered at the time of the Shelby County decision” – primarily counties located in southern states – “with a demonstrated history of discrimination in voting.”
The effects of the 2013 ruling became more apparent in the run up to the 2018 mid-terms, with clear implications for the upcoming 2020 elections:
- 17 million+ voters were purged nationwide between 2016 and 2018, similar to the number purged between 2014 and 2016, but considerably higher than numbers 2006 and 2008
- The median purge rate over the 2016–2018 period in jurisdictions previously subject to preclearance was 40% higher than the purge rate in non-preclearance jurisdictions (Brennan Center, 2019).
- Georgia dramatically increased purging after the 2013 ruling, removing 1.5 million voters from its rolls between the 2012 and 2016 elections, and another 309,000 in 2019.
- Before midterm elections 2018, voter purges occurred in North Dakota, Ohio, Missouri, Kansas, and New Hampshire.
- In 2019, a federal judge prevented Texas from implementing a massive, unjustified purge.
- Now, in the run-up to pivotal elections in 2020, court cases are attempting to compel purges of 200,000 voters in Wisconsin, 100,000 in Georgia, 500,000 in North Carolina, and elsewhere.
Unfortunately, the inconsistent and often prohibitive cost of state voter lists makes transparency and accountability very challenging.
All states maintain digital voter files, but each state determines how – and at what cost – people can access the list of registered voters in that state. Some states make access straightforward and even free. Others, like Arizona, Wisconsin, and Alabama assign prohibitive financial barriers to prevent public review and oversight of their data and voter information.
Examples of the costs of acquiring and maintaining some state voter lists for one year:
- Alabama: $378,000/year
- Arizona: $32,500 to acquire and $390,000/year
- Wisconsin: $150,000/year
- New Hampshire: $5000 to obtain and $60,000 annually.