The numbers are startling. “At least 17 million voters were purged nationwide between 2016 and 2018, similar to the number we saw between 2014 and 2016, but considerably higher than we saw between 2006 and 2008.” Moreover, the purged voters come disproportionately from jurisdictions that, because of their history of voter discrimination, were previously required to preclear electoral law changes with the Justice Department. That requirement has been on hold since the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act in 2013. “The median purge rate over the 2016–2018 period in jurisdictions previously subject to preclearance was 40 percent higher than the purge rate in jurisdictions that were not covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.” If the numbers had been proportionate between preclearance and non-preclearance jurisdictions “as many as 1.1 million fewer individuals would have been removed from voter rolls between 2016 and 2018.”
It shouldn’t surprise you that a red state such as Indiana had a much higher purge rate (22 percent) than blue states such as New Mexico (1.4 percent) and California (2.8 percent).
In plain language, since Trump was elected 17 million people have been thrown off the voting rolls. Some may have died or moved away, but some significant portion of those were infrequent voters who are more likely to be poor, nonwhite or otherwise marginalized. As the center explains, “States rely on faulty data that purport to show that a voter has moved to another state. Oftentimes, these data get people mixed up. In big states like California and Texas, multiple individuals can have the same name and date of birth, making it hard to be sure that the right voter is being purged when perfect data are unavailable.” Voters in most instances have no way of knowing if they’ve been thrown off the list “until they try to cast a ballot on Election Day — after it’s already too late. If those voters live in a state without election day registration, they are often prevented from participating in that election.”
The center recommends that before the 2020 election, “election administrators should take steps to ensure that every eligible American can cast a ballot next November.” That means “administrators must be transparent about how they are deciding what names to remove from the rolls. They must be diligent in their efforts to avoid erroneously purging voters. And they should push for reforms like automatic voter registration and election day registration, which keep voters’ registration records up to date.”
However, this assumes a degree of good faith that in the case of many officials is unwarranted. Voter purges are only one means of suppressing nonwhite and poor voters. Insufficient polling places (contributing to long lines and great travel distances to voting places), reduction in early-voting times, voter voter-ID laws and a host of other tactics like those we saw in Georgia’s governor race in 2018 suggest purges are part of a larger, deliberate plan that — oh look! — just happens to adversely affect voters you’d expect to vote for Democrats.
This isn’t merely about partisan advantage. The artificial reduction in the electorate with an eye toward boosting the percentage of white, Republican voters strikes at the heart of our democracy. The Voting Rights Act, before it was hobbled by the court, allowed millions of African Americans to vote for the first time, changing the composition of federal and state offices and changing legislative outcomes. Unless and until we expand the electorate (e.g., with voting by mail, automatic or same-day registration), we are undercutting our democracy and undercutting winners’ claim to moral and political legitimacy.
If nothing else, the 2020 election needs to be about reestablishing functional democracy. And that can happen only when everyone who wants to can vote and every vote counts.