How Should Voter Purges Work?

The mess that is Florida's voter-purge effort keeps growing by the day. Both the ACLU and the Department of Justice are suing the state, which in turn is suing the federal government. After the state's Division of Elections declared it had found around 182,000 noncitizens on voter rolls, the state sent letters to 2,600 people of them asking if they were citizens. Those who failed to respond risk being removed from the lists. The trouble, of course, is that 500 of them proved to be citizens. Less than 100 have so far been proved ineligible to vote. Because the list examines citizenship, Hatians and Latinos are disproportionately targeted. In the meantime, the 182,000-list looms in the background, though it has not been publicly released. As legal tensions boil over, the effort has been put on hold in just about every county. But with less than 90 days until the state's primaries, many worry there will be complications when people go to vote.

The debacle, however, brings to mind a larger question: How should states purge voter rolls? After all, it's in everyone's interests for the voter rolls to be kept up, removing the deceased and noncitizens. "List maintenance practices are good practices," explains Myrna Perez, senior counsel for Democracy Program at the Brennan Center. "They need to be done but they need to be done in a proper way."

In 2008, Perez wrote a report about best practices in maintaining voter lists. Her findings aren't too complicated. "Purges are problematic," she says, "when they happen in non-transparent ways, very close to an election [and] with sloppy methodology."

She cites egregious examples: a Mississippi official who purged 10,000 voters—wrongly—a week before the presidential primary, a Georgia official who removed 700 people supposedly ineligible for criminal convictions but which included those "who had never even received a parking ticket."

Perez offers some clear policy changes to keep such disasters from happening. Had Florida officials taken her advice, it's unlikely they'd face such a mess now.

The bulk of her suggestions focus on making the process more transparent. She pushes for states to establish clear rules around list maintenance and make them public—including a process for those to challenge their ineligibility. (Currently, there are no clear federal standards.) From there, the state should give public notice of any purges and make all purge lists available. Removal of any name would require sign-off from at least two officials.

Perez's report also suggests that states tighten up their criteria for removing a name from the rolls, and allow Election Day registration. That way, if a name is erroneously removed from the list and a person does not discover the mistake until he or she show up at the polls, there's still an opportunity to cast a ballot.

All of these recommendations stand in stark contrast to Florida's current predicament, in which no one knows what names are on the purge list and everything is happening with less than 90 days until the state's primary.

Voter purges, in and of themselves, are not the issue. "The problem," says Perez, "is sometimes folks, for a whole bunch of reasons, take short cuts, and don't do reasonable list maintenance practices—and actually do irresponsible maintenance practices."

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