In the wake of a 2013 Supreme Court decision that gutted federal protections for voters, a quiet threat to voting rights has grown — purges of voter registration rolls. And it’s a trend that could silence millions of voices at the polls this November, according to a new report released today by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.
Purges: A Growing Threat to the Right to Vote catalogs the scope and volume of voter purges, or the often-flawed process of cleaning up voter rolls by deleting names from registration lists. It also outlines steps states should take to protect from overly-aggressive list maintenance. The report comes the same week the Brennan Center sent letters to Secretaries of State in Alabama and Maine, warning them that their current purge processes likely violate federal law.
The Brennan Center’s analysis found that purge rates have increased across the country, especially in areas with a history of discrimination that are no longer required to get election changes precleared in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder. Had purge rates continued in these areas at the same pace as rates in jurisdictions not subject to preclearance at that time, 2 million fewer voters would have been deleted from voter rolls between the elections of 2012 and 2016.
“The Shelby County decision opened the floodgates for a rise of voter suppression laws like voter ID, and now we have reason to be concerned it had the same impact on purges,” said Myrna Pérez, deputy director of the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program and head of its voting rights and elections project. “Some states deleted more voters’ names than they had in the past, increasing the chance that eligible voters find themselves missing from the rolls on Election Day. We did not find one state that was doing enough to protect against bad purges.”
In their research, members of the voting team pored over data from 6,600 cities, towns, and counties across 49 states. They also found:
- Between the federal elections of 2014 and 2016, almost 4 million more names were purged from the rolls than between 2006 and 2008.
- Since 2013, eight states have either engaged in illegal purges or passed laws and policies that allow for ones that would violate federal law.
- States are using notoriously unreliable databases to flag potentially ineligible voters. One of the most prevalent, Crosscheck, is run by the official who formerly headed President Trump’s “Voter Fraud” Commission.
- A new coterie of activist groups is pushing for aggressive purges by hauling local election officials into court, claiming that their purge practices aren’t zealous enough.
“It is important to keep voter lists up-to-date and accurate,” said Jonathan Brater, a counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. “But any effort must at the very minimum be guided by the safeguards outlined under federal law. There are reforms like automatic voter registration that help accomplish that goal, without relying on bad data or sloppy processes.”