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Voting rights advocates in Pennsylvania are trying to intervene in a lawsuit they warn could result in purging eligible voters from the rolls. (Photo: Erik (HASH) Hersman/flickr CC 2.0)

Rights Groups Work to Stop 'Unnecessary and Potentially Disenfranchising Purges' of Voter Rolls in Pennsylvania

"We want to ensure eligible voters and election integrity are protected."

Jessica Corbett

American civil rights groups on Monday moved to intervene in a lawsuit filed by the right-wing activist group Judicial Watch that critics warn could result in "the unnecessary and potentially disenfranchising purges" of voter rolls in three Pennsylvania counties ahead of the November elections.

In the April 28 suit, Judicial Watch v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (pdf), the right-wing organization accused election officials in the commonwealth and Bucks, Chester, and Delaware Counties of failing to make reasonable efforts to remove ineligible voters from their rolls as is required by the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA).

The Pennsylvania chapters of Common Cause and the League of Women Voters responded Monday with a motion (pdf) filed on their behalf by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP. The filing asks a federal court to allow the rights groups to intervene as defendants in the case.

"Counties routinely clean up their voter registration lists of inactive voters and people who are deceased," Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, explained in a statement Monday. "But when outside actors try to strong arm the counties into excessive purging, that can lead to the disenfranchisement of eligible voters. Our clients have every reason to defend the interests of voters, and we hope the court recognizes that."

Terrie Griffin, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania, cast doubt on the credibility of Judicial Watch's analysis of Pennsylvania voter information, which was referenced in the right-wing organization's complaint.

"The data proposed by this challenge is unverified and deliberately targets senior voters and black voters," said Griffin. "This is just another attempt by an outside group to parachute in to disenfranchise Pennsylvania voters. In a presidential election year, during a global pandemic, our election officials should be focused on securing and safely administering our elections. Instead, they are forced to deal with the distraction of an illegitimate voter roll challenge."

The joint statement announcing the filing by the local rights organizations denounced Judicial Watch as "a pro-voter-purge group" that is "known for disenfranchising voters" through threats of legal action and lawsuits designed to pressure other states and counties—including Pennsylvania's Allegheny County in January—to remove inactive voters from their rolls.

"Lawsuits like these are designed to force counties to pull eligible voters off the rolls, and that's just not the way democracy is supposed to work," Suzanne Almeida, interim executive director for Common Cause Pennsylvania, told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

According to the newspaper:

Almeida said the voting rights groups are hoping to have the suit dismissed. If the court does end up ordering counties to remove voters, she said, the groups want to play a role in making sure it's done as fairly as possible.

"While reasonable list maintenance procedures are a necessary part of election administration, we staunchly oppose any effort that would result in the removal of eligible voters from the voting rolls," Almeida added in the groups' statement Monday.

John Powers, counsel with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said that "the Pennsylvania counties who have been sued in this case are already doing their part to clean their voter rolls."

"This lawsuit seeks to force these counties to engage in unwarranted and unnecessary purging in advance of the 2020 election," Powers warned. "If this litigation succeeds, eligible Pennsylvania voters will be purged from the rolls and disenfranchised."

Political analysts have long pointed to Pennsylvania as a key swing state in the presidential contest, in which President Donald Trump is expected to face off against former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic Party's presumptive nominee. On a national level, it remains unclear how the ongoing coronavirus pandemic may impact election practices. Pennsylvania permits no-excuse absentee voting but does not allow same-day voter registration.

With this intervention, said Adriel Cepeda Derieux of the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, "we want to ensure eligible voters and election integrity are protected."


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