Voter Registration Purges are the Most Ignored (And Most Effective) Form of Suppression

Since the first Obama election, Conservative states have frantically looked at means to regain the upper hand in the electoral game of cat and mouse. While many of the efforts of states to suppress minority votes have been highly publicized, the most widely ignored form of restrictive voter legislation has been the implementation and strengthening of voter purge policies across the country. During the New York primary election, more than 100,000 eager Brooklyn residents braved long lines only to find out that their names - unbeknownst to them - had been removed from the eligible voter list. Depending on the state in which you reside, if you failed you participate in the 2014 Midterm election, you may face the same fate. 

While purging voter rolls is no new phenomenon, the means in which the process is conducted has changed drastically and threatens the voting rights of millions in states across the America. The most common reason for a person to be removed from the ballot - other than through the commission of a crime that would result in disenfranchisement - is due to voter inactivity. Should a registered voter not participate in a certain number of consecutive election cycles, their name is removed from active voter lists. In a pillar of political research, the 1980 study entitle "Who Votes?', Raymond Wolfinger and Steven Rosenstone studied the impact of restrictive voting policy on election turnout and found that there was no significant difference in turnout between states with the most lenient purge policies and those who purge after one missed cycle. However, these results relied on two key assumptions: first, that purges were being conducted in accordance with the law, and second, those purged from active voter lists are not eligible voters who have been improperly identified as ineligible. In reality, an increasing number of erroneous purges are drastically reshaping the electorate in several states.


The Brennan Center of Justice at NYU's School of Law identifies several major flaws in the purging system which potentially jeopardize the democratic process, including a lack of oversight that could lead to manipulation of purge lists, the reliance on error ridden lists, bad name-matching criteria that leave voters vulnerable to misapplication, and the secrecy in which voter purges are conducted. Examples of erroneous and manipulative purges include the 2008 removal of 10,000 eligible voters from registration rolls in Mississippi by an election official from a home computer one week before the Presidential Primary, a Georgia purge of 700 people for criminal convictions carried out despite the fact that many on the list had no criminal record, and a Louisiana purge of 21,000 likely Hurricane evacuees suspected of registering in other states.

In the months prior to the 2012 election, Florida governor Rick Scott sought to purge the state’s voter roll of suspected “non-citizens” – an act deemed illegal by the 11th Circuit Court. The proposed purge list consisted of nearly 180,000 names, 82% of which were people of color, and many of whom were not only American citizens but eligible voters as well. A federal court challenge halted the act, stating questionable timing considering the significant roll the minority vote would play in deciding one of the most pivotal states in the 2012 presidential election.


So where does this leave you?

Lets say, hypothetically, if you failed to vote in the 2014 congressional election - which around half of the 130 million Americans that voted in the 2012 - election did, there is a possibility that you may be in a state that has recently altered its voter purge laws and decreased the number of consecutive missed elections required to remove your name from the voting rolls. If you haven't voted since 2008, there is a strong possibility that you are now ineligible. However, there is more than one reason that your name can be removed. Say you are a college student that registers in the precinct your campus resides in but have every intention to return to your home district. You likely will be removed from your home roll and be forced to re-register. Your state government may decide to send out registration verification forms - to targeted neighborhoods - that require a response, and those who fail to return them may be purged. Or, you may be one of the thousands who found there name removed from the list for having a name that sounded too ethnic to be an American citizen or even or a name that resembles someone who MAY have committed a felony. 

The problem with this is that in most instances, there is no notification that you are no longer eligible to vote. You will most likely discover your disenfranchisement through being turned away at the polls. If you are one of the majority of Americans that did not participate in the primary election season, you may not find out until the general election, and opportunities to rectify the situation have drastically decreased in the seven years since the Obama election. As states frantically rushed to implement restrictive voter laws, some of the pieces of legislation that were enacted were the elimination of same-day registration in several states and the reduction of early in-person voting. Therefore, if you are one of the citizens is states such as Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas - who all managed to restrict access to the polls through registration reform, waiting until election day to check your status may result in a lost vote. Some states may allow you the opportunity to cast provisional ballots; however, there is a great probability that you will be unable to cast a ballot that will actually be counted. And THAT is what some conservative led states are counting on.