Overnight, the number of registered voters in Georgia shrank by more than 300,000 in a contested but court-sanctioned action that could redefine the 2020 election, critics warned.
State officials have downplayed the mass cancellation, arguing it is routine “list maintenance.” Others say the practice amounts to a large-scale and undemocratic voter purge, which comes just over three months before Georgia’s presidential primaries.
This week, a federal judge allowed the secretary of state’s office to remove about 4 percent of registered voters from the rolls, a move officials said was aimed at those who have recently died or left Georgia. But there were also more than 120,000 people included in that cull simply because they hadn’t voted since 2012 or responded to mailings from the state, according to a lawsuit filed to halt the purge.
Georgia is the second state in four days to announce the deletion of hundreds of thousands of names from its rolls, alarming voting rights advocates, who fear the removals will disenfranchise swaths of the electorate — particularly low-income voters, young people and people of color, who tend to lean Democratic.
In Wisconsin on Friday, a judge ordered the state to remove up to 234,000 people from its registered voter list after a conservative group filed a lawsuit arguing that anyone who didn’t respond to an election commission letter seeking address confirmation was subject to purging. Wisconsin’s attorney general is appealing the decision, and the state’s League of Women Voters has filed a federal lawsuit to stop it from taking effect.
But in Georgia, the voters have already had their registrations canceled — though U.S. District Judge Steve Jones will hear arguments in the lawsuit against the state Thursday, which could lead to some citizens having their status restored. State officials have pledged to reinstate registration for anyone the court deems improperly removed, and they chafe at allegations of a “purge.”
“Proper list maintenance is not only required by long-standing laws but is also important in maintaining the integrity and smooth functioning of elections,” Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) said in a statement.
Raffensperger also pointed to the surge in new voters, most of whom have been registered automatically after getting driver’s licenses. He called the policy, favored by voting rights groups, “clear proof that we are doing things to make it easy for people to vote.”
Some advocates, however, say the state has lost their trust. The 2018 gubernatorial race was dominated by questions of voter suppression and, in particular, voter purging. Then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R), who refused to recuse himself as overseer of the election, defeated his Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams by the narrow margin of about 55,000 votes.
In July 2017, Kemp’s agency led a historic single-day voter purge, cutting more than a half million people from the rolls, and an estimated 107,000 of them were removed because they hadn’t voted in prior elections, according to an American Public Media investigation. Then, in October 2018, a month before the election, Kemp held up 53,000 registrations due to the state’s strict and controversial “exact match” law, which flagged applications over a misplaced letter or dropped hyphen in a last name.
Abrams went on to call Kemp a “a remarkable architect of voter suppression,” and after her defeat she founded Fair Fight, the voting rights organization that challenged Georgia’s latest purge.
“Georgians should not lose their right to vote simply because they have not expressed that right in recent elections,” Fair Fight Action CEO Lauren Groh-Wargo said in a statement. “Georgia’s practice of removing voters who have declined to participate in recent elections violates the United States Constitution.”
Federal law requires all states to update voting rolls, but Georgia’s laws are stricter than most, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution. It’s one of nine states with so-called “use it or lose it” laws that allow inactive voters to have their registrations canceled.
Keeping voter rolls up-to-date is important, said Myrna Pérez, who researches states’ purging practices as director of the Brennan Center for Justice’s Voting Rights and Elections Program. Flagging people who have died or moved keeps costs in check as elections approach, she said.
The question that concerns Pérez: “Are there systematic large-scale purges that are happening with sloppy data, without public notice, too close to an election and without a mechanism for correcting it if there were mistakes?
“Purges, if done wrong, can disenfranchise eligible Americans,” she said. “And purges are happening at scarily high rate.”
That rate has risen nationwide in recent years, the Brennan Center found. Even in the face of lawsuits and pressure from activist groups, states are culling their lists more aggressively, Pérez said. Many are also subject to less federal scrutiny after the landmark 2013 Supreme Court decision that ended extra review of voting changes in places with a history of discrimination.
The Brennan Center points to Georgia as one state that dramatically increased its purging in the years after the 2013 ruling. The state cleared 1.5 million voters from its rolls between the 2012 and 2016 elections — double what it cut from 2008 to 2012.
But the merits of Georgia’s latest purge are hard to assess in real time, Pérez said. Instead, it will be important to note how many of those cut end up re-registering and reporting mistakes, she said.
In an attempted purge earlier this year, Ohio’s secretary of state identified 235,000 names and addresses to be removed, saying the people flagged were dead, living elsewhere or duplicates. But the state, which won a 2018 Supreme Court decision finding its use-it-or-lose-it law constitutional, was wrong.
Nearly 1 in 5 names on the list — roughly 40,000 people — should not have been on it, the New York Times reported. Among them: Jen Miller, the director of the League of Women Voters of Ohio, an activist who spends her days registering people to vote.
“I voted three times last year,” she told the Times. “I don’t think we have any idea how many other individuals this has happened to.”