ANNA ELISABETH DELLAPA—Courts around the country, including those in Georgia, Wisconsin, and Indiana, are struggling with the question of whether or not to allow each state’s Election Commission to purge hundreds of thousands of names from their voter registration rolls. The upcoming 2020 Presidential Election has amped up voter suppression efforts, sounding the alarm of voter rights advocacy groups.
Purging or “cleaning” voter rolls entails the removal of a person’s name from a voting registration roll if the previously eligible voter has appeared to have either died or moved. For example, in Ohio, if someone “fails to vote in a single federal election, they must be send a forward-able address-confirmation notice. If there is no response, and the voter does not have any election-related activity for two federal elections, the state could then remove them from the voter rolls.” Errors often occur and result in the removal of eligible voters from the registration roll. Consequently, eligible voters are either turned away from the polls on election day or must cast a provisional ballot. The Supreme Court upheld Ohio’s controversial voter roll purging method as constitutional in Husted v. Philip Randolph Institute.
There was a sharp increase in the number of people purged from voter rolls after the 2013 Supreme Court Case Shelby County v. Holder which struck a down a pivotal section of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Supreme Court stated that requiring States with a history of racial discrimination to attain federal approval when altering their elections laws was unconstitutional because Congress “cannot simply rely on the past.” As a result of the controversial plurality decision a number of states have implemented troubling election laws meant to suppress certain classes of voters. According to research done by the voting rights organization the Brennan Center for Justice, there have been especially high purge rates in southern states including Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida.
Those who support the voter roll purging maintain that inaccurate voter rolls encourage fraud, though there is little evidence to back up this claim. Voter advocacy groups also counter by noting that there are frequently errors that remove eligible voters from the roll and that the entire process is “shrouded in secrecy, prone to error and vulnerable to manipulation.”
For example, in September 2019, Ohio planned to purge 235,000 voters from its rolls. Through an investigation of the list of supposedly inactive voters, the League of Women Voters of Ohio found that around 40,000 people were placed on the removal list in error. Similarly, Georgia, a state with a long history of suppressing minority and low-income voters, attempted to remove 300,000 people from its voter registration list but later had to reinstate around 22,000 people when the State discovered they had been erroneously purged and were actually still eligible to vote. After Fair Fight Action, a voter rights advocacy group started by Stacy Abrams, challenged Georgia’s most recent attempt to purge voters from the roll in the state’s Northern District Court, a federal judge decided that state officials could move forward with the removal of almost 100,000 voters. With the rise of voter suppression efforts and the increased stakes of the upcoming 2020 election, the courts will need to act to protect the rights of eligible voters and ensure the preservation of our democracy.