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In the Know: The Rise in Voter Purge Litigation

We have seen a rise in voter purge litigation over the past few years. State and local Leagues have joined litigation as defendant-intervenors in response to dangerous and broadly drawn lawsuits, often filed by third-party think tanks, that seek to force voter roll purges. Leagues have also initiated lawsuits to block government officials from their efforts to cull voter rolls in a careless manner. The entities and individuals attempting to force purges claim to be upholding the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA); however, the NVRA requires list maintenance be undertaken with due care and respect for the right to vote. Typically, any NVRA actions are initiated by a state’s head election official.  

Depressed electoral turnout and emergency cancelations and suspensions of elections are the new reality across the country due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If then combined with hasty demands to purge rolls based on unverified data, the voting rights of millions of eligible voters could be detrimentally impacted. The League maintains vigilant watch of voter purges, especially as we enter this vulnerable time. 

Where are we fighting voter roll purges? 

The Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF) was founded by J. Christian Adams, who headed the president’s short-lived Voter Fraud Commission in 2017. Under Mr. Adams’s leadership, PILF urges election officials across the country to purge their rolls, often using unverifiable data to claim that the rolls have been improperly maintained. 

These tactics are troublesome for the League, and therefore, we have fought to combat them whenever and wherever possible: 

  1. On March 2, LWVPA and LWV of Greater Pittsburgh joined One PA and the Pittsburgh A. Philip Randolph Institute and filed a motion to intervene as defendants alongside the Allegheny County Board of Elections to defend the county against a lawsuit PILF filed to force the county to purge its voter rolls. PILF’s purge request does not comply with NVRA standard practices and procedures for executing reasonable list maintenance. The NVRA requires list maintenance to be based on verified data and to consider the impact on eligible voters. 

  2. Last month, the Michigan and Detroit Leagues sought to intervene as defendants alongside Detroit’s election officials against PILF’s lawsuit seeking a voter purge in the city. PILF once again based its complaint on unverified data, and the city’s large number of eligible Black voters are at risk of disenfranchisement should PILF’s lawsuit succeed. The League continues to argue that proper list maintenance is important but must be based on verified data and PILF may not have adequately included the voter’s perspective. 

Harsh voter purge tactics have been employed by other groups with which the League has a history of opposing in voting rights litigation. One such group is the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which sued the Wisconsin Elections Commission last year to force a purge of 234,000 voters within 30 days of the elections commission mailer checking voters’ addresses. The election commission planned to allow voters 12 to 14 months to respond: 

  1. League of Women Voters of Wisconsin asked an Ozaukee County judge to allow the League to join the lawsuit against the Wisconsin Elections Commission as an intervening defendant. LWVWI sought to intervene because the data the purge would be based on is not reliable and because a purge so close to a presidential election would lead to voter suppression. The Ozaukee County judge denied the League’s motion to intervene and ordered the Elections Commission to immediately purge the 234,000 voters from the rolls. The elections commission appealed the order, and a Wisconsin Court of Appeals judge reversed the Ozaukee County judge’s order to immediately purge the county’s voter rolls. 

  2. After the Ozaukee County judge ordered an immediate voter purge in the above lawsuit, the League and two Wisconsin registered voters filed a due process claim in federal court. The League argued that the voter purge would violate the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment because the Wisconsin Elections Commission did not provide adequate notice that (1) told voters what they needed to do to remain on the rolls, (2) explained the consequences to voters if they did not respond to the notices, and (3) laid out the timeline for voters to act. 

Threat of indiscriminate voter purges also comes from state legislatures. In 2017, the Indiana State Legislature passed a law that would replace the list maintenance requirements in the NVRA with more relaxed requirements that allowed quicker and less careful removal of voters from the rolls: 

  1. The Indiana League and the Indiana NAACP filed a lawsuit to block the enforcement of the state’s voter purge law, pointing out how the law violates the NVRA. Federal law requires states to circulate notice and institute a waiting period for voters whose names were flagged for removal from the voter rolls by a crosscheck program. The Indiana law eliminates the notice and waiting period requirements, and the League’s lawsuit seeks to reinstate the federal requirements. Last August, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals kept the preliminary injunction ordered by the district court in place, stopping the law from being enforced since its 2017 passage. 

What happens now? 

The League agrees that state election officials must maintain clean voter rolls and that proper list maintenance in accordance with the NVRA is crucial. Thus, election officials around the country must be properly resourced and outfitted to undertake this task. The real risk posed by improper list maintenance practices is the denial of duly registered citizens’ right to vote.  

When removing voters from the rolls, election officials should err on the side of protecting democracy not increasing disenfranchisement. Continue to reach out to LWVUS when you learn of threats to purge voter rolls in your area.