The article was posted at AlterNet and is reposted here with permission of the author.
The states are swapping data files to find duplicate names, but civil
rights attorneys say they are not following federal law to remove them.
Election officials in a handful of states appear to be ignoring the
federal law dictating the way registered voters may be purged from
voter rolls, civil rights attorneys say.
National voting rights
groups have contacted officials in Kansas, Michigan and Louisiana in
recent weeks because those states appear to be purging registered
voters after election officials found duplicate names and birthdays of
people on their voter lists and in out-of-state databases, such as
driver's license records.
The states are assuming that a more
recent driver's license or voter registration in another state
indicates that the voter has relocated, meaning the voter registration
tied to their prior address is no longer valid. While purging voters
who move, die or are imprisoned is a routine part of managing
elections, the federal law governing purges -- the National Voter
Registration Act -- lays out a multiyear process of trying to contact
voters to confirm a change of address before deleting them from voter
The election attorneys say the NVRA process seeks to err
on the side of protecting voting rights and cannot be circumvented by
what appears to be a duplicate voter registration.
Voter Registration Act (NVRA) limits the circumstances in which a state
may cancel a voter's registration," the Fair Elections Legal Network, a
Washington-based voting rights consortium, said in a June 24 letter to
Kansas Secretary of State Ron Thornburgh. "The NVRA does not permit
cancellation based on a match alone."
"We are looking at several
statewide purge issues," said Bradley Heard, a senior attorney with
Advancement Project, a voting rights law firm. He said that in
Michigan, both data matching and mailings by local officials to verify
a voter's registration information were of concern. "We are also
looking at a state law that calls for purging a bunch of voter
registration records that are otherwise eligible."
election officials in these three states disagree with the voting
rights groups, offering different explanations that suggest existing
state laws or election management practices pre-empt the NVRA.
follow the state law that was adopted by our state Legislature," said
Jacques Berry, press secretary for Louisiana Secretary of State Jay
Dardenne, a Republican. "It supersedes the NVRA."
"There is a
section of the NVRA that they (the voting rights lawyers) interpret
differently than we do," said Brad Bryant, Kansas deputy secretary of
state. "It has been this way for 15 years."
Kelly Chesney, spokeswoman for Michigan Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, did not reply to requests to comment.
Voting Rights Groups Target Purges
week, Project Vote, which is working in two dozen states to register
voters in 2008, sent a letter to Dardenne saying his state appeared to
be ignoring sections of the NVRA that require that voters be notified
by mail over two federal election cycles before being removed. Project
Vote's attorney said Louisiana Commissioner of Elections Angie LaPlace
was treating apparently duplicate database listings as "cases of
suspected fraud or some other irregularity."
Last year, the NAACP
Legal Defense Fund sued Louisiana over the purging of registrations of
refugees from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Many people who applied for
a driver's license in a neighboring state -- to quickly acquire an ID
after losing their belongings in the storms -- also were registered to
vote without their knowledge, NAACP attorneys said. Those new voter
registrations resulted in 21,000 voters being removed from Louisiana
voter rolls last August, the group said. While the NAACP suit was
dismissed, Project Vote's recent letter suggests the state's voter list
maintenance practices have not changed. Project Vote also wrote to the
U.S. Department of Justice about the matter, as the agency oversees
federal elections in most Southern states as a result of the Voting
Rights Act of 1965.
Louisiana election officials disagreed with
Project Vote's assessment, saying the state has its own voter purge
process that "supersedes" the federal law. Berry, the secretary of
state's spokesman, explained that Louisiana updates its voter roll
annually with multiple mailings to voters so the lists are accurate in
state elections -- not just federal contests. He said that process is
more rigorous than that outlined in the federal NVRA, requiring, for
instance, that voters reaffirm their Louisiana voter registrations in
person after receiving a final state notice. Berry said the process was
approved by the Department of Justice.
"What we find is in the
vast majority of cases the voter has moved out of Louisiana and
registered in another state, not realizing that they will not
automatically cancel their voter registration," he said.
issue of whether states are heeding the National Voter Registration Act
reveals how the implementation of the nation's election laws often
turns on a patchwork of local or state policies. In the absence of
litigation, whether a state or election jurisdiction is following the
NVRA often remains a question of local interpretation.
County, Mississippi, county supervisors this week rescinded a plan to
send a mass mailing to voters, where returned postcards were to be used
to purge voters over a two-year period. In this instance, Project Vote
notified county officials that its timetable would violate the NVRA,
and, according to local news reports, the county's supervisors decided
to abandon the plan and instead prepare for a high-turnout election in
"The mildest things confuse people and can ultimately
disenfranchise people during elections," Madison County Supervisor Karl
Banks said in a Clarion Ledger report. "Here we are willing to disenfranchise people because they don't send a card back?"
Kansas, Bryant, the deputy assistant secretary of state, said his state
has an established practice of comparing its voter rolls with databases
from neighboring states to identify people who have moved. He said
Kansas has a "memorandum of understanding" with 11 states to share
databases that can be used to clean up voter files. Those states are
Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Texas, Arkansas,
Ohio, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.
Bryant said statewide
election data has improved in recent years, facilitating the job of
updating voter rolls. The federal Help America Vote Act, passed in 2002
after Florida's presidential election debacle, required states to
consolidate county or municipal voter rolls into statewide lists.
Bryant said the new statewide lists have created "certain data
elements" that can be compared with other states, such as driver's
"All the comparisons do is create a list of
possible matches in each state," Bryant said, adding that it is then up
to each state to decide how it treats that information for purge
The attorneys for the voting rights groups agree to a
point, saying vote list maintenance in itself is an important and
necessary goal. However, the attorneys and states disagree about what
should come after the matches are discovered -- whether to immediately
purge voters or to follow the NVRA process of sending postcards to
voters over two federal election cycles to verify their residence and
Bryant said he did not know how many registered voters had been removed in 2008 using his state's data-matching process.
Michigan's Secretive Approach
Michigan, the issues are more complex. Advancement Project's Heard said
there has been an overall lack of "transparency" regarding several
aspects of the state's voter purge process. In 2006, he said, Michigan
election officials did a statewide mailing to all voters that did not
mention the mailing would be used to verify voter registration
information. Still, Heard said the returned postcards were used to
remove 230,000 registered voters from voter rolls within 90 days of
that year's general election, which also violates the NVRA, he said.
BenDor, statewide coordinator for the Michigan Election Defense
Alliance, a local voting rights group, said state officials cited an
April 2007 letter from the Department of Justice pressuring the state
to do more to clean up its voter roll for the statewide mailing and
August 2006 purge. Ten states received those letters, which critics
said was a political move because the claims of sloppy voter rolls was
based on outdated data, notably U.S. Census population estimates.
the 2006 purge, Michigan has used driver's license databases from other
states to identify another 280,000 names as apparent duplicate voter
registrations, Heard said. This month, staffers for Michigan Secretary
of State Land, a Republican, canceled a meeting with Heard and Michigan
activists to discuss purge issues.
"We have been trying to get a
meeting with election officials to talk about the issues and get their
explanation," Heard said. "It's hard to say what happened with the
280,000 supposed out-of-state movers, since we can't get the info from
Land's spokeswoman, Chesney, did not respond to
requests to comment. However, newspapers in Michigan have quoted
Chesney as saying the meeting was canceled when an information session
appeared to be a precursor to litigation. Heard said Advancement
Project has not ruled out filing a lawsuit.
"We have to evaluate
all of our options," he said. "We are hoping the secretary of state's
staff will sit down and talk about it."
Purge Issues Not Going Away
purge issue is only going to rise in profile in the coming weeks.
Several voting rights groups are studying the process in a number of
swing states and hope to issue reports later this summer. Among the
issues being studied is the accuracy of the database matches used to
purge voters. When California first implemented a data-matching program
in 2006, some counties had error rates as high as 40 percent, meaning a
registered voter who appeared to have moved would have been incorrectly
purged without further efforts to confirm their residency and voter
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