Study Finds States Purging Millions of Voters in Secret, Often Erroneously

For Immediate Release

Brennan Center for Justice
Contact: 

Tim Bradley, BerlinRosen Public Affairs, (646) 452-5637

Study Finds States Purging Millions of Voters in Secret, Often Erroneously

Brennan Center Reveals Wild Inconsistencies in Maintenance of Voter Registration Lists

NEW YORK - Today the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law released
one of the first systematic examinations of voter purging, a
practice-often controversial-of removing voters from registration lists
in order to update state registration rolls-click here for report. After a detailed study of the purge practices of 12 states, Voter Purges
reveals that election officials across the country are routinely
striking millions of voters from the rolls through a process that is
shrouded in secrecy, prone to error, and vulnerable to manipulation.
Upon the release of Voter Purges, today the Brennan Center
and the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law began filing
public records requests with election officials in 12 states in order
to expose the purges that happened this year. 

"Purges can be an important way to ensure that voter rolls are
dependable, accurate and up-to-date," said Myrna Pérez, counsel at the
Brennan Center and the author of the report. "Far too frequently,
however, eligible, registered citizens show up to vote and discover
their names have been removed from the voter lists because election
officials are maintaining their voter rolls with little accountability
and wildly varying standards," Myrna Pérez stated.

According to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, between 2004
and 2006, thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia reported
purging more than 13 million voters from registration rolls. While the
secret and inconsistent manner in which purges are conducted make it
difficult to know exactly how many voters have been stricken from
voting lists erroneously, Voter Purges finds four problematic
practices with voter purges that continue to threaten voters in 2008:
purges rely on error-ridden lists; voters are purged secretly and
without notice; bad "matching" criteria mean that thousands of eligible
voters will be caught up in purges; and insufficient oversight leaves
voters vulnerable to erroneous or manipulated purges. The report
reveals that purge practices vary dramatically from jurisdiction to
jurisdiction, that there is a lack of consistent protections for
voters, and that there are often opportunities for mischief and
mistakes in the purge process.

"The voter rolls are the gateway to voting, and a citizen typically
cannot cast a vote that will count unless his or her name appears on
the rolls. Purges remove names from the voter rolls, typically
preventing wrongfully purged voters from having their votes counted.
Given the close margins by which elections are won, the number of
people wrongfully purged can make a difference. We should not tolerate
purges that are conducted behind closed doors, without public scrutiny,
and without adequate recourse for affected voters," said Wendy Weiser,
Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center.

Voter Purges reviews the state statutes, regulatory
materials, and news reports in 12 diverse states: Florida, Kentucky,
Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New York, Ohio, Oregon,
Pennsylvania, Washington, and Wisconsin. In five states-Kentucky,
Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, and Washington-the Brennan Center study also
draws on extensive interviews with state and local election officials
charged with the maintenance of voter registration lists.

The list of states in which the Brennan Center and the Lawyers'
Committee for Civil Rights Under Law began filing public records
requests for purge records today includes 12 states. They were chosen
because they had flawed purges or voter registration practices in the
past, they use problematic purge procedures with insufficient
protections for voters, they recently conducted large-scale purges, or
they have specific practices in place that warrant further examination.

"Every year, the Election Protection hotline receives calls from
across the country from eligible voters whose names have been removed
from the voter rolls. We need to take the lid off the secret process of
voter purges so we can remedy any problems we discover and ensure that
they don't recur in the future," said Jonah Goldman, Director of the
National Campaign for Fair Elections at the Lawyers' Committee for
Civil Rights Under Law, which coordinates the national Election
Protection program.

"Nearly every purge that has come to light has bumped eligible
voters off the rolls. Because purges are done in secret on an ad hoc
basis, the only way to find out what is actually happening and if
eligible voters have been wrongfully purged in droves is through public
records requests," said Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center.

Several examples of recent purges made public reveal that purge practices are in dire need of improvement:

  • In Mississippi earlier this year, a local election official
    discovered that another official had wrongly purged 10,000 voters from
    her home computer just a week before the presidential primary.
  • In
    Muscogee, Georgia this year, a county official purged 700 people from
    the voter lists, supposedly because they were ineligible to vote due to
    criminal convictions. The list included people who claimed to have
    never even received a parking ticket.
  • In Louisiana, including
    areas hit hard by hurricanes, officials purged approximately 21,000
    voters, ostensibly for registering to vote in another state, but did
    not provide adequate opportunity to contest the records.

Flawed purges are sometimes caused by erroneous government lists. For
example, even though Hilde Stafford, a Wappingers Falls, New York,
resident, was still alive and voting in 2006, the Social Security
Administration's Death Master File-a database of 77 million deaths
dating back to 1937-lists her date of death as June 15, 1997. Indeed,
from January 2004 to September 2005, the Social Security Administration
had to "resurrect" the records of 23,366 people wrongly added to its
Death Master File.

Another cause of erroneous purges is flawed procedures for
generating purge lists. In the infamous Florida purge of 2000-for which
conservative estimates place the number of wrongfully purged voters
close to 12,000-Florida registrants were purged from the rolls if 80
percent of the letters of their last names were the same as those of
persons with criminal convictions. Those wrongly purged included
Reverend Willie D. Whiting Jr., who, under the matching criteria, was
considered the same person as Willie J. Whiting.

In 2004, Florida planned to remove 48,000 "suspected felons" from
its voter rolls even though many of those identified were in fact
eligible to vote. When the flawed process generated a list of 22,000
African Americans to be purged-and only 61 voters with Hispanic
surnames, in spite of Florida's sizable Hispanic population-it took
pressure from voting rights groups to stop Florida officials from using
the purge list.

Voter Purges contains several recommendations to improve the
transparency, accountability, and accuracy of purges, including notice
to individual voters and the public, strict and uniform criteria for
the development of purge lists, and "fail-safe" provisions to protect
voters from erroneous purges. An overall fix is the establishment of a
system of universal voter registration, with protections for voters
erroneously left out.

"It is essential that we put in place standards for voter purges to
ensure public accountability and protection for voters," said Myrna
Pérez of the Brennan Center.

"There really are no effective national standards to govern voter
purges, and the result is a chaotic, whimsical approach to the
maintenance of voter rolls," said Michael Waldman, Executive Director
of the Brennan Center. "The lack of consistent rules and procedures
means that Americans across the country lack basic protections against
erroneous purges. We encourage election officials, legislators,
advocates and concerned members of the public to use this report to
improve voter purge practices and ensure that the rights of eligible
voters are not jeopardized," Waldman concluded.

A full copy of the Brennan Center's analysis of purge practices and
recommendations is available here: www.brennancenter.org/purges. The
Brennan Center's website is www.brennancenter.org.

The website for the Election Protection program is
www.866ourvote.org, and for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights
Under Law is www.lawyerscommittee.org

 

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