November’s midterm elections are fast approaching — but some voters may find they’re no longer registered to vote, even if they’re eligible. The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School has released research showing an uptick in voter roll purges, including some removals that it says are illegal.
“We found that purges are happening across the country at an increased rate, and importantly, they are happening at an outpaced increased rate in states that were formerly covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which was weakened by the Supreme Court in the 2013 Shelby County decision,” she says. “So at a time where we have fewer federal protections than we’ve had in the better part of 50 years, more and more states and localities are purging voters.”
On why there has been an increase in voter roll purges
“There’s a confluence of events that are happening all at the wrong time. We have some states that are enacting policies or laws that are disenfranchising voters because of the increased number of people being purged as a result of these laws. We have some activist groups that are putting pressure on states and localities to more aggressively purge voters. And then we have these new databases that are being used supposedly to help clean up the rolls, but if not being used properly, they can lead to people being erroneously purged. We’re also seeing this occur against a backdrop where there’s an increasing amount of rhetoric about fraud, which is making voters nervous about the integrity of our elections, when what we actually need to be concerned about is eligible people having unnecessary and unhelpful barriers in front of the ballot box.”
On why some of these purges are illegal
“Well, there are federal and state laws that govern how election administrators are allowed to clean the rolls. There are federal and state protections. And in the course of our study, we found a number of states had conducted purges that were illegal, and importantly, we found a few states that have policies on the books that would authorize an illegal purge. We are actually suing the state of Indiana because they have an illegal purge practice, and very recently, we had a court forbid them from proceeding with that practice until there was more study and more evidence before the court. And we’ve sent notice to two other states that are also undertaking the same procedure that we expect them to not be purging voters in violation of federal law.
“So I think the most important thing for your listeners [is] not to panic, but to actually check to see if they’re registered, and to help the people in their community, the people they care about, the people in their family to make sure that they’re registered, and if it turns out that they’re not on the rolls, and they believe that they should be, they need to sound the alarm. They need to call the election administrator, find out what happened. They need to let the Brennan Center know, so we can look into it. We want election administrators to clean our rolls. We want them to be accurate. We want them to be up to date. But we can’t have these sloppy, haphazard practices that are removing eligible voters without any protection.”
On Ohio’s “use it or lose it” policy that purges voters who don’t vote
“[Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted] is right in that it is 100 percent his responsibility to strike an appropriate balance between keeping the polls accessible to eligible voters and removing bloat. He was taken into court because a group of voters in Ohio felt that Ohio’s policy of removing voters was too aggressive and was contrary to federal law. A Supreme Court decision agreed that Ohio’s policy was lawful, but that should not be interpreted as a green light for everyone else to haphazardly purge.”
On if Ohio’s policy has been interpreted in that way
“I think it was recent enough that it’s too early to tell. And we have been very very clear that the Supreme Court affirmed a number of the important protections that we see being violated. And one thing your listeners should be aware of is that Ohio’s policy was an outlier. So what you need to be on the lookout for is states that had a policy that was more voter friendly than Ohio switching to a policy like Ohio. But we have not seen that kind of turn just yet, but again it’s still too early.”
On legitimate reasons to remove voters from the rolls
“We want people who are dead to be removed from the rolls. We want people who have moved to be removed from the rolls. We want people who have been made ineligible because of a criminal conviction or because of an adjudication of mental capacity to be removed from the rolls. Everybody should agree that only those who are eligible to vote should be on the rolls. What we don’t want are purge practices that are sloppy, haphazard, done in secret, and in violation of federal and state law. And everyone benefits when our rolls are clean, but eligible voters are harmed when in the efforts to clean them, election administrators get too aggressive or sloppy.”
On President Trump’s claim that a lot of noncitizens are voting
“There is a very big difference between noncitizens getting on the rolls and noncitizens actually voting. There are a lot of reasons that folks who are not eligible might end up on voter rolls through no pernicious or malicious reason — through a mistake, because someone misinformed them and the like. As far as people who are noncitizens actually voting, it was really disappointing to see the president make that kind of statement because it is false. We actually did a study shortly thereafter where we went to election administrators that were the most likely to see large numbers of noncitizens voting, and even casting a very wide net, even looking very far in advance, we just found a handful of folks who may have been noncitizens that actually voted. And obviously, we want that number to be as small as possible, but like anything in life, the response needs to be proportionate to the harm, and it actually needs to fix it.
“And all of this fearmongering, all of this really racialized language is not constructive to fixing the problems that we have in election administration. We should as Americans be very worried about Russian criminals interfering with our elections. We should be very worried about that. We should be very worried that election administrators don’t have the kinds of resources that they need to make sure that the polls go smoothly on Election Day. We should be very worried that folks are going to be conducting sloppy purges. And we should be very worried about the millions of Americans who are eligible to vote but are not registered because they’re disgusted with what they see as a political system where folks are just, you know, harping at each other and not actually proposing solutions. So there’s a lot of room for improvement in how we administer our elections, but vilifying a segment of the population when there is no data supporting it, and when there is in fact contrary data, is really irresponsible and unconstructive.”