The Problem of Voter Purging — and Where We Go from Here
By Hannah Fried
Last month, more than 200,000 Wisconsin voters were nearly stripped of their fundamental right to vote simply because they didn’t respond to a letter in the mail. This is the latest in a string of moves by powerful interests to unfairly kick voters off the rolls — and silence whole communities.
State and local officials are responsible for routine maintenance of voting records. Accurate voter rolls ensure people receive information about where and when to vote, and help volunteers run polling places smoothly. But seemingly reasonable policies can cover for something more insidious: the outright denial of people’s right to vote. The Leadership Conference, our All Voting is Local campaign, and other advocates have raised alarms on the practice of problematic list maintenance including what’s known as “voter purging,” in recent years because such removals disproportionately harm voters of color, young people, and low-income Americans.
This played out before the midterm elections in Georgia. In 2018, the state’s “exact match” law called into question the registration status of 50,000 voters over minor inconsistencies on their registration forms. And from 2010 to 2018, then-Secretary of State (and now Governor) Brian Kemp purged from the voter rolls more than 1.4 million Georgians — many of them simply for not casting ballots in past elections. The competitive gubernatorial race in which Kemp himself was a candidate was ultimately decided by a margin of 1.4 percent.
Then, in October 2019, Georgia election officials announced plans to remove more than 300,000 people from the voter rolls — a whopping four percent of registered voters.
What may seem like simple bureaucratic decisions actually make the difference between who can vote and who cannot. Voters may no longer face the blatant bigotry of literacy tests and violent mobs at the polls. But policy decisions like voter purging have a real impact on people’s lives, especially in communities of color and other historically disenfranchised communities. In many cases, the writing is on the wall: Even as states cite maintenance of voter rolls as a justification for purges, it is clear that some officials care more about cancelling people’s registrations than helping voters get on, and stay on, the voter rolls.
After the state of Ohio published a list of 235,000 people set to be purged over the summer, the state — with the diligence of local advocates — determined that nearly 40,000 people should not have been on the list at all. Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose admitted the state’s purge system is replete with errors. Yet he is moving forward with more purges anyway. Almost half a million Ohioans — many of them African American and low-income voters — were removed from voter rolls in 2019.
This continues a troubling trend in Ohio. In 2018, All Voting is Local sent text messages to 384,444 voters in Ohio who were already in the pipeline to be purged. Of the voters we contacted, 62,479 people updated their registration and cast a ballot on Election Day. That positive response is a bright spot, but election officials must do more to avert an otherwise ominous forecast — one casting shadows in states across the country.
All Voting is Local is preparing for voter purges to ramp up in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida. Our campaign is reaching voters directly and urging them to register and stay on the rolls.
But let’s be clear: Voter education is the job of election officials. In states where purges are already scheduled to occur, election officials must broadcast voting changes before an election takes place and encourage the public to confirm their registrations. And they should contact voters by text, phone, and public service announcement.
Snail mail is not enough. When Ohio’s secretary of state sent mailers to 264,516 voters in March of 2019, only 540 voters updated their registration. Mailers are part of the problem. Consider that many voters ended up on purge lists simply because they missed a postcard alerting them to their eligibility. Ordinary mailers are too easily confused with junk mail — and that assumes a person receives the mailer at all. How can states rely on a method so flawed that it helped cause the purging of voters to begin with?
As we look ahead to the 2020 elections, we must shine a spotlight on bad list maintenance practices and demand change. If state and local election officials are serious about maintaining robust and reliable voter rolls, they should modernize voter registration through reforms like same-day and automatic voter registration, which allows for easy updates and ensures accurate rolls. We have the momentum: 16 states and the District of Columbia have enacted automatic voter registration already. Let’s not stop there. Simply erasing people from the rolls is no solution. It is selling out our democracy.
Take Action Now
Wisconsin residents, are you still registered? Only one way to find out. Text ‘WisconsinVotes’ to 52199 and check your registration status. Don’t get left out of the next election. Protect your right to vote today!
Hannah Fried is the National Campaign Director for All Voting is Local, a collaborative campaign housed at The Leadership Conference Education Fund. For more information on All Voting is Local and how you can help expand access to the ballot, visit allvotingislocal.org.