Voter Suppression Threat: Voter Purging

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Factors Contributing to Voter Purging

Between the 2014 and 2016 elections, roughly 16 million names nationwide were removed from voter rolls. Federal law governing purges allows a voter’s name to be purged from the voter rolls on the following grounds: (1) disenfranchising criminal conviction; (2) mental incapacity; (3) death; and (4) change in residence. In addition to these criteria, individuals who were never eligible in the first place, such as someone under 18 or a noncitizen, may be removed. 

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, “Voters may be removed at their own request (even if they remain eligible). While all 49 states with voter registration lists have affirmative policies to remove names from the rolls (typically for several or all of the four delineated categories), states vary in the manner and frequency which they conduct voter purges.” 

Disenfranchising Conviction

States have different policies about voter eligibility and different procedures for removing people from voting rolls. One eligibility factor is a person’s conviction of a felony offense. Whether individuals who have committed a felony can vote or not varies state wide. Some states allow felons currently in jail to vote, and other states refuse to allow those who have served their time and are on parole the right to vote. Others refuse to allow anyone with a former felony conviction whose time and parole has been served to vote. 

Mental Incapacity

Twenty-eight states have specific rules requiring “that people whose mental capacity is diminished should not be forced to vote.” Definitions of mental capacity vary, and reform attempts have been made, especially given that we haven’t had one state with voter protections against purges.

Death

Federal law mandates that states remove the deceased individuals from the rolls. There are no state laws detailing the sources of information to determine which voters are deceased. Some jurisdictions use information from state agencies, some review obituaries, and some rely on the Social Security Administration’s Death Master File.

 Residency Changes

States vary in how they perform list maintenance for changes of address. Some of that variation is in the timing. Montana, for example, conducts address removals every odd-numbered year,  and Connecticut conducts address removals annually. There is also variation in which source of information is used. Two common sources are drivers license updates and the postal service’s National Change of Address (NCOA) database. States also utilize other sources, such as interstate databases, returned mailings, or voter inactivity.

In 2017, Crosscheck – an organization that identifies voters who may have cast ballots in two different states in the same election – examined the records of 98 million voters. Their study looked at 42 jurisdictions in 12 states, including eight of the 10 jurisdictions with the nation’s largest noncitizen populations. Out of the 23.5 million votes cast in these jurisdictions, election officials found only 30 instances of suspected noncitizen voting, or .0001 percent of the total. 

Voters with common names are also more likely to match with different individuals for obvious reasons, but a less-obvious concern is the disproportionate effect this has on minority voters. African-American, Asian-American, and Latino voters are much more likely than Caucasians to have one of the most common 100 last names in the United States. Non-white people are more likely to have common shared names. For instance, 16.3 percent of Hispanic individuals and 13 percent of black individuals have one of the 10 most common surnames, compared to 4.5 percent of white individuals. This information is according to Joshua Comenetz, “Frequently Occurring Surnames in the 2010 Census,” U.S. Census Bureau, October 2016. 

High school Honors teacher from Marple Newtown, Michael Karpyn, sees a connection between race and voter purging. Referring to race in the next election, Karpyn states, “Well, on its face, it is the responsibility of Boards of Elections to clean up voter rolls and make them as accurate as possible. Where this practice gets controversial is when the same boards mess up and purge otherwise legitimately registered voters from their rolls. It’s happened in different parts of the country and affected different groups.” 

Karpyn continues, “In some states, people have been removed due to the incorrect information that they were convicted of a felony. The biggest mess that I can recall was in New York City before the 2016 Democratic Primary when 126,000 registered voters were purged. That happened, I think, to try and stem the tide of Bernie Sanders’ supporters against Hillary Clinton.”

According to Karpyn, there are states in the U.S. engaging in practices to exclude minority groups from voting. “One could suggest that there’s enough evidence to support that assertion,” Karpyn said.  

There have been consequences for those caught in New York when 200,000 voters in 2016 were purged and various groups sued the City of New York, and the truth emerged. Based on government documents, it appears that the attorney general did no comprehensive investigation into voters who claimed in a separate lawsuit that their party affiliations had been mysteriously changed, or of new voters who claimed their registrations either went unprocessed or came back with the wrong party affiliation. 

“Voting is one of my most cherished rights personally,” said Karpyn. He described the impacts of this threat saying, “It’s such an essential form of political participation and everyone should be able to exercise that right. Mistakes do happen, but if it’s a legitimate, concerted effort to disenfranchise people because of how they might vote, it stinks to high heaven and just shouldn’t happen in this country. Period.” 

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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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