Explainer: What is Voter Purging?

Home » Explainer: What is Voter Purging?

According to the Brennan Center, “Voter purges are an often-flawed process of cleaning up voter rolls by deleting names from registration lists.”

Voter purging is just one of many voter suppression topics that has been widely discussed in the realm of voter rights. While there can be some benefits to purges, there can also be many downfalls due to flaws within its system.

The most common form of voter purging takes place when a registered voter has their name taken off of a voter roll, either on-purpose or accidentally by the state, in an effort to keep rolls accurate. In most situations, the registered voter is removed from a roll for reasons such as death, relocation, inactive voting history, and sometimes duplicate names within a given area.

Matt Vasilogambros, a staff writer at Stateline, a news service funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, conducted research about the presence of voter purging and the “messy politics” it may cause. He wrote about this in a recent article about the topic.

“A lot of non-partisan experts say there is inherently nothing wrong with wanting to keep your voter rolls clean,” Vasilogambros said. “The problem happens when you do wide-scale purging, which could accidently remove people who are otherwise eligible from voter rolls.”

How many names are cleaned from voter rolls on a regular basis?

According to the Brennan Center, at least 17 million people were purged from elections in between 2016 and 2018.

These numbers, collected from data released by the federal Election Assistance Commission, have remained historically high in recent history and have only climbed compared to similar data collected between 2006 and 2008.

This spike in voter purging can be attributed to the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder case in which the Supreme Court struck down key provisions put in place through the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to mitigate voter suppression.

With a wide array of post-Shelby County voter suppression tactics, voter purging finds itself as one of the most prevalent affecting citizens in each election. Clearing voter rolls certainly can be important when making sure things are being kept up-to-date. But some people ask: is the current state-run process being used to clear those rolls the proper way to do it?

“The main issue here is that people think that if you do wide-scale purges, you are going to inevitably disenfranchise people,” Vasilogambros said.  “Progressives kind of take it a little further and will say that voter purging is a one in many tools in a toolbox for voter suppression. They would add to that, purging voter lists by having voter ID requirements or moving polling places further and further away from minority communities or low-income neighborhoods.”

The act of moving or closing polling places is just another form of purging voters from elections. While being more of a physical form of a voter suppression tactic, moving a polling place from a low income or minority affected area can widely suppress an entire area of voters. An example of this form of voter purging is moving polling places further away from public transportation hubs, therefore making it harder for some voters to reach.

Most recently, Georgia cleared around 309,000 people in December of last year, removing nearly 4 percent of the state’s voters from its rolls. Georgia has been plagued by voter suppression tactics, such as voter purges, for quite some time and most notably during the 2018 gubernatorial race between current Governor Brain Kemp and Stacey Abrams. Kemp refused to recuse himself in his role overseeing the same 2018 election, raising questions as to whether or not racially motivated voter suppression tactics were used at the time.

Who is in charge of voter rolls?

Each state has a legal right to maintain the voter rolls within their boundaries. Since decisions are made on a state level, voter purging laws can vary depending on which state you reside in.

“Essentially, some states are in an effort to keep their voter rolls clean, which means they only have people who are citizens above 18, but are also residents in their rolls,” Vasilogambros said. “They say that this will allow them to have smaller polling books at locations, which keeps their internal systems less cluttered.”

When it comes to which state office is in charge of the maintenance of voter rolls, it is up to the secretary of state to oversee that process. While each state’s laws and handling of the rolls will be different, some use similar programs such as the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) system to help with the evaluation and accuracy of a state and its voter registration systems.

According to Pew Charitable Trusts, the ERIC system helps to compile official data on eligible voters from a variety of resources such as voter and motor vehicle registrations, U.S. Postal Service addresses, and Social Security death records. By utilizing these resources, ERIC can help to keep voter rolls “more complete and up to date.”

What should I do if I show up to vote and find out my name isn’t on the ballot?

Voter purging can create a difficult situation for some voters who show up to vote at their local polling place, only to find out their name does not appear on the voter rolls. This situation can force some people to ultimately not have the ability to vote at times. For others, there are still ways to vote, like asking to cast a provisional ballot. While provisional ballots still give the voter a chance to make their voice heard, the process of the ballot being recorded takes much longer than it normally would.

“Provisional ballots are kind of tricky because they are not really counted in that election night vote,” Vasilogambros said. “They are counted later on after a persons’ identity has been confirmed, so that can delay things by a lot, and if it’s a really tight race, it can obviously affect the outcome in that regard.”

Additionally, 21 states, plus the District of Columbia, do offer an option for same-day registration, which is quite handy if someone is purged off of a voter roll.

Is there a way for me to check whether or not I have been purged?

“In a perfect system, voters would be given ample time to know that they have been or at risk of being purged or have been purged,” Vasilogambros said. “In an ideal situation, they would be given a lot of notice, and that notice would come in multiple forms.”

But the problem becomes how good states are at contacting residents to let them know they have been purged. In some situations, purged voters are contacted by a sole postcard from the state that can get lost in a heap of junk mail.

Some states inform its citizens better than others, but the ideal situation is to be notified with plenty of time before an election via multiple letters to your home or even through email if possible. 

“Best case scenario, you have gotten all of these notices, but there are also fail safes in the background like automatic voter registration or same day registration, so you are not completely left in the dark,” Vasilogambros said.

SOURCE INFO: Matt Vasilogambros, Staff Writer at Stateline, which is a news service funded by the Pew Charitable Trust

IMAGE: Voting Vectors by Vecteezy

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Youth Voters Unite is a transmedia storytelling project produced by senior Communication majors at Cabrini University. Students in Senior Convergence: Media for Social Justice are reporting this academic year on the voting process and voting justice topics. Their goal is to educate youth voters on the importance of engaging in the political process and claiming their right to shape their own future. 


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