Republican lawmakers across the country are proposing an aggressive culling of voter rolls by checking names against other government databases that may be flawed, meaning eligible voters could be swept out and blocked from voting.
Nationally, at least 50 bills have been proposed that would trim voter rolls more vigorously than in previous legislative sessions, and several have already been signed into law, spurred by record turnout in the 2020 election and allegations, led by former President Donald Trump, that the outcome was somehow rigged.
GOP-led state legislatures in Utah, Iowa, Texas and elsewhere want local officials to check voter names against other official sources, including death records, criminal records, lists from state motor vehicle departments and federal immigration records, and remove questionable names.
Yet those records are not structured for identifying voters and when they have been used too broadly to cull rolls in the past, tens of thousands of people were put at risk of being disenfranchised, many of them poor and people of color.
Overly aggressive culling could affect the outcome of an election. Wisconsin officials inaccurately flagged more than 46,000 voters as having moved in 2017 — more than twice President Joe Biden’s winning margin in the state last November.
Since 2002, most states have been required to offer voters who are not on the rolls a provisional ballot, and those ballots are used more in areas with younger and more diverse populations. And they are not always counted. In 2018, nearly 43 percent of provisional ballots were not included in the final tally, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
Critics of the proposed changes say that they could lead to more eligible voters being incorrectly removed from the rolls and ultimately denied their vote.
“Supposedly dead people turn out to be alive. Non-citizens turn out to be citizens. People who moved out of state are still there,” said Eliza Sweren-Becker, who tracks voting rights for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “There’s all kinds of ways these purges can go wrong.”
Republican legislators in Utah wrote a law that requires clerks to use death certificate data and remove names within 10 days. In Iowa, a new law requires clerks to use the U.S. Postal Service’s change-of-address list to check for voters who have moved, and threatens the clerks with criminal charges if they do not. A proposal in Texas threatens clerks with financial penalties.
All states but North Dakota require people to register before voting and culling the rolls helps keep them manageable.
Chuck Flannery, deputy secretary of state in West Virginia, said that cleaner rolls would help increase voter confidence by reducing the lure of conspiracy theories about voter fraud spurred in part by high numbers of ineligible voters who are still listed on the rolls.
“We’re really trying to get these lists perfect,” he said.
While helpful for identifying voters who might have moved or died, the data sources used to check voter rolls can be outdated, produce false matches or have other conflicts because the data was never designed to be used for voter rolls, such as when a college student registers to vote at school but uses a home address for a driver’s license, which is legal.
In Arkansas, a list from the state’s criminal records division incorrectly listed more than 7,000 people as felons in 2016. In Texas, a list based on drivers’ license data incorrectly tagged more than 25,000 people as non-citizens in 2019. And a long-running battle over voter rolls in Wisconsin has revealed tens of thousands of voters who were incorrectly flagged because of other state records.
A study by professors from Yale, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania published in February found at least 4 percent of Wisconsin voters shown as likely to have moved based on administrative records in 2017 still lived at the same address when they voted in 2018 and 2019, with people of color twice as likely to be incorrectly flagged.
In a recent U.S. Senate hearing on voting rights, tensions over the new proposals came to a head, with Republican senators objecting to Democrats calling the bills “the new Jim Crow,” and witnesses such as Stacey Abrams, the voting rights activist and former Assembly minority leader in Georgia, who said a recently enacted law in her state was “grounded in racial animus.”
Republicans reject those claims, arguing the bills are needed to tamp down on voter fraud and restore public confidence in elections.
Elections experts say some of the state legislative proposals may get watered down by the time they are passed, as officials who actually run elections weigh in. And eventually the issue will end up in the courts, as advocates for and against more culling file lawsuits.
In Wisconsin, the state Supreme Court recently ruled against the conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, which had sought to force the state elections commission to remove 69,000 voters flagged as potentially having moved.
In Georgia, elections experts predict a provision in a new law that allows anyone to challenge the eligibility of an unlimited number of voters in local clerks’ offices will face scrutiny from judges. Three lawsuits have already been filed over the law.
Congress could also step in and set tougher national standards for removing voters from the rolls. A voting reform bill that passed the House in March would require states to match a full name, date of birth and the last four digits of a voter’s Social Security number from another source before beginning the process to remove that person from the rolls, but it remains stalled in the Senate because of Republican opposition.
Wisconsin Elections Commission spokesman Reid Magney said voting rolls need to be kept clean, but that there is now a wide partisan divide over how data should be handled, which leaves little room for agreement on how to improve the process.
“On the one side you have people who say the election system is totally corrupt,” he said. “On the other, you have people saying peoples’ votes are being suppressed.”
Story by Ryan Teague Beckwith.