What is voter purging, and why is it a problem?
The baseline assumption for democratic practice should be that all eligible citizens should be able to vote. Period.
Anyone paying even minimal attention to electoral matters realizes that almost everything involved with voting has become a contentious, heavily polarized warzone engaging parties, candidates, politicians, special interests, and a host of other combatants. Let’s just begin with an assumption that all can accept: registration and voting has become more difficult, so once we are able to qualify an eligible voter, we need to be able to guarantee that when they present themselves at the polls, they will be able to vote. One of the chief obstacles to warranting this guarantee in recent years has become the practice by particularly partisan election officials to purge voters before they can vote. Similarly, efforts to “cage” voters by partisan targeting to disqualify voters based on incorrect addresses are in many ways another side of the same coin.
Many of these practices go back decades, especially in the South. They were an issue in the 1980s and 1990s in Louisiana for example, and a central issue in the close victory of Democrat Mary Landrieu over Republican Woody Jenkins for a Senate seat there in 1996. The Congressional and Supreme Court’s release of states from Justice Department oversight and enforcement with potential consent decrees over racial bias has also encouraged increased suppression. Going into the midterm elections in 2018, purges occurred in North Dakota, Ohio, Missouri, Kansas, and New Hampshire. Kris Kobach, then Kansas Secretary of State, attempted with some wide success to recruit other states to use a flawed database in order to purge their lists that was found be wildly inaccurate. The Secretary of State in Georgia, now the governor, purged 1.5 million voters in that state, including 500,000 in 2017 alone. Texas was barely prevented from a implementing a massive, unjustified purge within the last year.
More recently purging has acquired a certain legal status after the Supreme Court ruled by a 5-4 majority in 2018 that the practice of purging in Ohio was legal. Voters could not be purged for not voting, but they could be purged if they had not voted and did not respond to a mailed notice seeking to confirm whether a voter has moved. In essence, the Court ruled that broad non-discriminatory “caging” is legal. Ohio has been among the most aggressive states in this area, sending a notice to all voters who do not vote in any federal election cycle. Georgia has a similar system. We have no question that Stacey Abrams would be governor of Georgia, if an anti-purge program such as we are recommending had been in place. Virtually all states purge voters at some level and under the color of the Supreme Court decision, more are moving in this direction.