Republicans Accused of Voter Purge in Multiple States

By James Bickerton

US News Reporter

Republican officials in Ohio and Virginia have sparked controversy by removing thousands of voters from their state’s electoral roles ahead of elections in November, with one campaigner accusing the GOP in Virginia of a “direct attempt to blatantly disenfranchise voters.”

In Ohio, 26,000 voter registrations deemed inactive by Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose were removed ahead of a crunch vote seeking to enshrine abortion access in the state’s constitution. It came after LaRose wrote to local boards of elections in June, instructing them to terminate the registrations of voters who had been inactive over the past four years.

Those removed hadn’t voted since May 2019 and failed to respond to letters from local authorities asking them to confirm their voter status. LaRose said this was done carefully to avoid disenfranchising genuine voters and said 12 people had replied to letters sent out stating they still want to be registered in Ohio.

He commented: “The last thing we want to do is unnecessarily remove someone from the voter rolls, and that’s why we’re so careful about this.”

The process was challenged by Jen Miller, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, who accused LaRose of “using a hatchet.” Speaking to The Columbus Dispatch, she said: “They get two notices in the mail that are written in arcane legalese and often don’t make sense to voters.

“So this process is just incredibly ineffective. It’s like using a hatchet rather than a surgical blade to make sure that we’re only removing those individuals who have passed away or moved out of state.”

Democratic state Representative Bride Rose Sweeney has written to LaRose demanding clarity over the disenfranchising process.

In a statement sent to Newsweek, LaRose said: “When it comes to maintaining our voter rolls, we don’t quietly ‘purge’ active voters. We remove inactive registrations after we’ve learned a voter has moved and not been active at the address for more than four years. That’s been the federal law for three decades, and it’s essential to keeping out rolls honest by eliminating duplicate registrations.”

Separately, Democrats in Virginia are calling for a Department of Justice investigation after thousands of voters were mistakenly removed from electoral rolls. On Friday, officials working for Governor Glenn Youngkin admitted 3,400 voters had been taken off the rolls due to a computer software error.

However, not everybody buys this explanation. Nick Gothard, the election protection manager of the Virginia Civic Engagement Table nonprofit, told The Hill that the move was a “direct attempt to blatantly disenfranchise voters.”

He added: “These incidents, occurring in such close proximity to election day, raise serious questions about ongoing voter suppression tactics and efforts to subvert public trust in Virginia’s secure and fair elections.”

On Monday, Virgina’s two Democratic senators and six House representatives wrote to the Department of Justice urging “immediate action” to investigate why the voters were removed.

The Virginia elections department said it is “worked diligently [with State Police] to review and check each canceled record to ensure all impacted voters are reinstated.”

Newsweek reached out to Governor Youngkin for comment via email.

It comes amidst growing concern over alleged voter suppression across the United States. Speaking to Newsweek, David Bateman, an expert in democratic institutions at Cornell University, attributed this primarily to Republicans.

“Voter suppression tactics have become increasingly common in recent decades, especially now that the Voting Rights Act has been eviscerated by the Supreme Court,” Bateman said. “The Republican party is, by far, the most active culprit here, and have made voter disenfranchisement a central component of their political campaign strategies.

“There are a few very straightforward reasons for this. The Democratic party traditionally relied heavily on mobilizing working-class voters. Higher barriers to voting disproportionately affect working-class people. As a result, Republicans look to suppress voting, and Democrats look to expand it,” he said.

Bateman said this has not been a particularly effective tactic.

“The one piece of good news is that, to date, most voter suppression efforts have been relatively ineffective,” he said. “Again, there’s a few reasons for that. The voters these target are not likely to turn out in the first place. The forms of suppression can be countered by organizing, including voter registration drives and legal challenges.

“This is a resource drain for Democrats and voting rights organizations, so it’s still costly even if there isn’t a clear effect at the polls. And the forms voter suppression has taken to date are limited by state and federal jurisprudence.”

Faith in election integrity among some Republicans has been undermined by Donald Trump‘s repeated claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him by voter fraud. This claim has been repeatedly rejected in court and by independent election and legal experts.

Update 11/2/23, 11:56 a.m. ET: This story has been updated with comment from Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose.

Virginia admits thousands of voters wrongly purged days before election

Voting rights groups decry error days before elections that will determine which party controls the state legislature

Virginia election officials wrongly removed almost 3,400 eligible voters from the state’s voter rolls, a significant error that has caused alarm among voting rights groups just days before critical state elections that will determine which party controls the state legislature.

Officials announced the number of voters affected by the purge on Friday – more than 10 times the number of people they had initially said were affected. Macaulay Porter, a spokesperson for the governor, Glenn Youngkin, had told the Washington Post on 6 October that at least 270 people had been wrongly removed and that officials didn’t expect that number to rise much. Officials declined to provide updates on the number affected until Friday, when they announced that the actual number was “nearly 3,400” (they did not provide an exact figure). VPM, Virginia’s NPR affiliate, first reported on the issue in September.

All of the people who were removed had a prior felony conviction but had had their rights restored by the governor. Virginia has long stripped anyone convicted of a felony of their voting rights and is one of three states that gives the governor the sole authority to restore them. Nearly 102,000 people can’t vote in Virginia because of a felony conviction, according to an estimate by the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice non-profit. Nearly two-thirds of those are on probation.

Earlier this year, Virginia announced it had identified 10,558 people who had had their rights restored but had subsequently committed a new felony. That data wasn’t accurate. The Virginia state police, which had been supplying the data to the state, had been wrongly flagging people as having committed a new felony if they had received a technical violation of their probation – something like failing to show up for a meeting or failing a urine test.

Tonya Jones, 59, lives in Highland Springs, near Richmond, the state capitol. On 1 September, the local registrar sent her a letter saying she had been removed from the rolls because of a new felony conviction. Jones thought the letter was a “trick” because she had been regularly voting since getting her rights restored in 2019 and had even served jury duty. She had been convicted of a drug-possession felony in 2017 or 2018, but completed drug court and hadn’t had any new convictions.

When early voting began this fall, she tried to cast a ballot and was told her name wasn’t on the rolls. “I was very upset because I knew that my rights were restored,” she said. “My life is turned around and I’m like, ‘What in the world are they talking about?’”

She called two of the numbers that were on the notice she had received. She couldn’t get through to anyone at the first number, she said, and the second person advised her to start the process of getting her voting rights restored again. She said she finally spoke with someone at the state police who said she had been wrongfully removed and helped her get back on the rolls.

A young white or Latino family, wearing winter coats and no hats, with two young kids at an indoor voting station with a cement floor.
Officials said on Friday that more than 10 times the number of people they had initially said were affected had been removed from the voting rolls. Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA

Galen Baughman, who was convicted of a sex-related offense as a teenager and has become a well-known activist on issues around sex offenders, was also affected. He had his voting rights restored by then governor Ralph Northam in May of 2021 and had been voting ever since. When he showed up to vote in Virginia’s primaries earlier this year, he found out he had been removed from the rolls.

“I know that people have been literally put in handcuffs for trying to vote. I’ve had enough handcuffs in my life – I didn’t want to have that experience again,” he said.

Baughman followed up with the local registrar, who informed him that he had been removed because records showed he had committed a new felony, according to a letter Baughman provided to the Guardian. The “new felony” actually was a probation violation for being kicked out of a treatment program, according to court documents and an official criminal history record. He eventually went to court and got a judge to order the registrar to restore him to the rolls.

Virginia’s department of elections said on Friday that nearly all those affected had been reinstated and were receiving notification. Voting rights groups, who have spent weeks pressing the state for more information, are concerned there will still be confusion and want assurances there aren’t more affected voters.

“If you are somebody who has had their rights restored and you’re unsure whether you’ve been affected or not, there’s just such [a] chilling effect,” said Tram Nguyen, the co-executive director of New Virginia Majority, a non-profit civic engagement group.

Democratic members from Virginia’s congressional delegation called on the justice department to investigate the matter. A justice department spokesperson declined to comment on the request. Porter, the governor’s spokesperson, referred questions to the Virginia department of elections, which did not respond to a request for comment. Youngkin has asked Virginia’s inspector general to investigate the issue.

“We really have no way to know if 3,400 is accurate,” said Shawn Weneta, a policy and advocacy strategist at the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “The administration still is refusing to be transparent with voters about how it happened.”

It’s also unclear what information the state is providing to voters to explain the issue. Weneta provided a letter to the Guardian that was sent to one person who was wrongly removed that informed him he was newly registered to vote with no explanation of why he had been removed.

A typewritten piece of white paper folded in threes, with a few chunks blacked out.
A new voter registration notice from the Virginia department of elections. Composite: Anonymous

Making sure those affected receive a thorough explanation is critical. When someone is removed, they typically receive a letter from election officials informing them of the reason they’re being removed. Even though Virginia has same-day registration, people who show up at the polls and find out they have been purged might not have all the information they need to register on the spot, said Sheba Williams, who runs Nolef Turns, a group that advocates for people with felony convictions.

“The reality is we are now eight days away from an election and many of these voters likely received a letter from their registrar … saying that their voting rights had been revoked,” Aaron Mukerjee, an attorney who is leading voter-protection efforts for the Democratic party of Virginia, said on Monday. “This is all a bit too late. The deadline for requesting an absentee ballot has already passed. The deadline to register without having to do same-day registration has already passed.”

Ohio purged 26,000 voters days before abortion referendum deadline

Voting rights groups say move by Republican secretary of state lacked transparency and did not follow established practice

Ohio’s Republican secretary of state quietly canceled the voter registrations of more than 26,000 voters in late September, less than two weeks before the deadline to register to vote in next week’s hotly contested abortion referendum in the state.

Voting rights advocates say the process lacked transparency and departed from Frank LaRose’s usual practice of alerting groups before removing registrations from the rolls. And it comes as LaRose campaigns hard against the 7 November constitutional amendment vote – when Ohio voters will decide whether to enshrine the right to abortion in the state constitution – as well as a vote on a separate measure to legalize marijuana.

“We are disappointed in the secretary of state’s office’s authorization of the voter purge while voting for the November election was already (and still is) under way,” Kayla Griffin, of the voting rights group All Voting is Local, said.

Voter list maintenance is a standard, legally required part of the election process, and many if not most of these registrations are for people who have moved away, died or long since stopped voting. The state issues alerts by mail to voters whose registration is flagged for removal, leaving the chance to update or confirm their registration before being kicked off the rolls.

But it’s unusual to remove voter registrations this close to an election given the risk of disenfranchising people who intend to vote but simply missed the memo that they had been flagged for removal. In fact, if this was a national election rather than a state-level contest, what LaRose’s office has done would have been illegal. The National Voter Registration Act prohibits elections offices from systematically removing voters from the rolls within 90 days of a federal election.

Typically, voter removals in Ohio are scheduled in the summer to afford voters who are affected plenty of time to re-register. This time, the deadline to remove voters from the rolls came on 28 September, nearly a week after military and overseas absentee voting began on 22 September. LaRose had postponed the process before an 8 August special election to change the constitution. But the new date landed smack-dab in the middle of this current election fight.

Voting rights advocates also say the office did not follow its established – although not obligatory – practice of alerting voting rights groups ahead of the purge. The office would typically give “the entire list to groups like ours so that we could, one, make sure the list was accurate and two, contact voters”, said Jen Miller, executive director of Ohio’s League of Women Voters.

“As far as I know, no unit has been reached out to,” said Tom Roberts, the president of the Ohio Conference NAACP and a former Democratic state senator. Instead, Roberts said he found out about the removal of nearly 27,000 voters on 26 October, a month after county offices were required to adjust their voter rolls.

Bride Rose Sweeney, a Democratic state representative, questioned the timing of the voter purge in a 20 October letter to LaRose, writing that “now that our reproductive rights, our very lives, are on the November ballot, you have rushed to purge voters” and asked the secretary of state to “undo this bad decision and restore them to the rolls since voting is already underway for this 7 November election”.

In a response letter, Paul Disantis, the chief legal counsel of the secretary of state, strongly rejected the implication that the timing of the purge was improper, noting that the National Voter Registration Act called for regular list maintenance and argued the purge was “not a choice; it’s longstanding federal law”. To maintain the rolls, elections boards use data from the National Change of Address database; the maintenance is intended to keep information about registered voters up-to-date in the system. “This process is also essential to ensuring the integrity and accuracy of Ohio’s elections,” wrote Disantis.

In an email to the Guardian, a spokesperson for LaRose’s office wrote that the office typically only conducts outreach when removing inactive voters using the state’s supplemental, controversial “use-it-or-lose-it” process which targets voters who have not cast a ballot in two years.

Voting rights groups said that was not accurate – and that LaRose’s past outreach had addressed both kinds of list maintenance. They also pointed out that there was no legal requirement to schedule the purge before the election; the office could have waited until after votes had been cast.

“We’d like to think that when the voter rolls are cleaned up, it’s the folks who’ve moved, it’s the folks who passed away, but unfortunately, other folks end up getting picked up and purged sometimes by accident,” said Catherine Turcer, director of Common Cause Ohio. In 2019, Ohio came close to accidentally removing nearly 18,000 active voters from the rolls; 10,000 of them ended up casting ballots in the 2020 election.

Voter purges also often disproportionately affect voters of color: one study using data from a Wisconsin election found Black voters may be removed from the rolls in error more than twice as often as white voters.

The election is the culmination of a months-long effort by abortion rights groups, including Ohio Physicians for Reproductive Rights and Ohioans for Reproductive Freedom, which introduced language for the ballot initiative in February. It’s the latest in a series of efforts by abortion rights advocates to use statewide referendums to protect access in states where Republican-controlled legislatures pushed to restrict it. They have been largely successful: Voters even in conservative states like Kansas and Montana have passed referendums protecting abortion access.

But Republicans, conservative groups and activists in Ohio, including LaRose, have fought to prevent its passage – and sought to change the rules to make it harder for voters to change the state constitution in the first place. In May, Republicans in the state legislature introduced a bill that threatened to make it much harder to pass a constitutional amendment by requiring more than 60% of the vote to pass an initiative, rather than a simple majority – an effort explicitly designed to undercut the abortion referendum.

LaRose, who is also running for a US Senate seat and is looking to endear himself with conservative voters, was a prominent supporter of that failed campaign.

“This is 100% about keeping a radical pro-abortion amendment out of our constitution,” LaRose said in June. “The left wants to jam it in there this coming November.”

In a special election on 8 August, Ohio voters rejected the proposal by 57% to 43%, a lopsided result in the Republican-leaning state.

LaRose came under fire again in August, when the secretary of state drafted ballot language proponents of the reproductive rights amendment called misleading. Rather than referring to a “fetus”, as the ballot previously had, the new ballot used the term “unborn child”. Polls suggest that the abortion rights referendum is expected to pass by similar margins to which the August referendum was defeated – but that the wording LaRose approved for the ballot could narrow that margin.

In January, Ohio passed a wide-reaching law that restricts voting access by tightening voter ID requirements, allowing less time for voters to return absentee ballots, and reducing the early voting period. In the 8 August election, voting rights groups observed an uptick in rejected ballots and confusion among poll workers who perpetuated misinformation about the new law. Voters whose registrations were removed during the September cleanup of the rolls can cast provisional ballots at their polling place or at the board of elections.

The last-minute removal of more than 26,000 voter registrations and the numerous recent changes to voting requirements, Turcer says, “can become really problematic” for voters.

“All of these little things combined create a situation where there are more obstacles to voters,” she warned.

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