DETROIT, Michigan - A federal judge ruled Monday that the current practices to purge the voter rolls in Michigan are illegal and ordered Republican Secretary of State Terry Lynn Land to immediately stop the cancellation of registered voters whose voter identification cards are returned as undeliverable in the mail.
The purging of registered voters, many of whom lost their homes to bank foreclosure, in the state of Michigan prompted the federal lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), United States Student Association Foundation and the Advancement Project, and resulted in calls in Congress for a Justice Department investigation.
Civil rights groups feared the removal programmes could have a potentially devastating impact in minority and low-income areas hardest hit by the mortgage crisis like Wayne County, home to large African American and Hispanic communities -- key voting blocs for Democrats.
"Disenfranchisement undermines our democracy and [the judge's] opinion restores some confidence in our electoral system," said Michael Steinberg, Michigan ACLU legal director.
U.S. District Judge Stephen J. Murphy III told state election officials to restore the names of 1,438 people who have been removed from the rolls under the practice since January, and desist from further purging, Murphy ruled.
"We are very pleased with the court's ruling. It was a thoughtful and powerful opinion," said Bradley Heard, the Advancement Project's lead attorney in the case. "The judge basically said both programmes we challenged were in apparent violation of federal law."
The first programme used by the state, according to the lawsuit, is the immediate cancellation of voter registration cards of Michiganders who have obtained driver's licenses in other states without the appropriate confirmation of registration notices.
"There is no reason to believe that the kind of 'residence' that any given state requires in order to issue a driver's license is identical to 'residence' for voting purposes," Murphy said in a 43-page ruling.
He noted that "Michigan itself permits out-of-state driver's license applicants to retain their active status in the QVF [Qualified Voter File] by affirming that their out of state addresses are only temporary, and that they remain eligible to vote in Michigan. Thus, even the state recognises that voters can be eligible both to vote in Michigan and to apply for a driver's license in another state."
Under the second removal programme, election clerks automatically eliminate names of voters from the files who may have moved from their registered addresses, instead of sending them a warning notice by forwarded mail.
Murphy also found this second programme illegal, but rather than ordering it to be cancelled, he said the plaintiffs and the defendants should try to reach an agreement in the litigation.
He also ordered the state to immediately discontinue their practice of cancelling or rejecting a voter's registration based upon the return of the voter's original voter identification card as undeliverable; and remove the "rejected" marking in the QVF from the registrations of all voters whose original voter IDs have been returned as undeliverable since Jan. 1, 2006 until the present, unless rejection was warranted for some other lawful reason.
The New York Times reported last week that election officials in at least nine states, including Michigan, are violating federal law by either improperly using Social Security data to screen newly registered voters or removing thousands of voters after the federal deadline expired.
"Regrettably, our past and recent history is filled with examples of partisan bias driving voter purging and vote suppression," said Laughlin McDonald, director of the ACLU Voting Rights Project. "If these practices are allowed to continue, we could see thousands of eligible voters show up on Election Day only to find that they were removed from the rolls."
Kelly Chesney, spokesperson for the Michigan Secretary of State, told IPS that the state is reviewing the federal court's decision.
"We are reviewing Judge Murphy's opinion and have not yet determined what our next step would be," Chesney said.
Asked if failure to act on the decision will deter those voters affected under the programme, she replied, "I don't think so because in every election we have a balloting option. I can't imagine it affecting the election."