Voter roll purges

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Voter rolls, or voter registration lists, are the gateway to voting. Unless your name appears on the voter rolls, you cannot cast a regular ballot. Yet state and local officials regularly remove — or “purge” — names from voter rolls. Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia reported purging more than 13 million voters from registration rolls between 2004 and 2006. [1]

Purges, if done properly, are an important way to ensure that voter rolls are accurate, by removing duplicate names, and people who have moved, died, or are otherwise ineligible. Frequently, however, eligible, registered citizens show up to vote and discover their names have been removed from the voter lists. Myrna Pérez of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law writes, "States maintain voter rolls in an inconsistent and unaccountable manner. Officials strike voters from the rolls through a process that is shrouded in secrecy, prone to error, and vulnerable to manipulation." [2].

Types of Voter Purges

According to the Brennan Center’s 2008 report on voter purges, there are six major reasons that a voter would be removed from the voter rolls:

  • Change of Address
  • Death
  • Removal due to criminal conviction
  • Duplicate Records
  • Removal due to inactivity
  • Incapacitation

Problems with purging

The Brennan Report identified 4 basic problem areas that lead to abuse

  • Source lists riddled with errors
  • Purges conducted in secret, without notice to voters
  • Bad “matching” criteria leaves voters vulnerable to purges
  • Purges are conducted with insufficient oversight

Brennan Center Proposed Policy Recommendations

By taking a few simple steps, voters rolls can be maintained as needed without risking disenfranchisement of any voter. Recommended first steps include:

  • Transparency and accountability for purges
  1. Develop and publish uniform, non-discriminatory rules for purges
  2. Provide public notice of an impending purge
  3. Develop and publish rules to remedy erroneous inclusion in an impending purge
  4. Do not use failure to vote as a trigger for a purge
  5. Develop directives and criteria with respect to the authority to purge voters
  6. Preserve purged voter registration records
  7. Make purge lists publicly available
  8. Make purge lists available at polling places
  • Strict criteria for the development of purge lists
  1. Ensure a high degree of certainty that names on a purge list belong there
  2. Establish strict criteria for matching
  3. Audit purge source lists
  4. Monitor duplicate removal procedures
  • “Fail-safe” provisions to protect voters
  • Universal registration

Examples of voter purges

2000 election

Prior to the 2000 election, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris and Governor Jeb Bush hired Database Technologies to purge voters whose names matched or were similar to those of ex-felons, which resulted in the removal of 82,389 voters from the rolls. An investigation by Leon County Elections Supervisor Ion Sancho revealed that 95% of those purged in his county were, in fact, legally entitled to vote. Greg Palast of the BBC found that more than half those wrongly purged were African-Americans, even though African-Americans represent only about 11% of the electorate and that the purge list contained almost no Hispanics, notwithstanding Florida’s sizable Hispanic population. (In Florida, Hispanics largely vote Republican, and African Americans vote overwhelmingly Democratic.) [3]

2004 election

Florida planned to again remove 48,000 “suspected felons” from its voter rolls in 2004. As in 2000, most of those identified were in fact eligible to vote.[4] As in 2000, the 2004 purge list over-represented African Americans (almost half the list) and included thousands who had had their voting rights restored under Florida law.[4]

2008 election

  • In 2007, Louisiana election officials again removed 21,000 mostly African-Americans from the voter registration rolls of areas most devastated by Hurricane Katrina.[5] A voter could avoid removal only with proof that the registration was canceled in the other state, documentation not available, of course, to voters who never actually registered anywhere else. [6]

Other examples of voter purges in the 2008 election cycle:

  • Ohio - A Brennan Center report on voter roll purges includes an Ohio Case Study that says 416,744 registrants (5.3% of total registrants) were purged in 2006, and cites current examples.
  • Washington - A Brennan Center report on voter roll purges includes a Washington Case Study that says, "Between the close of registration for the November 2004 federal elections and the close of registration for the November 2006 federal elections, Washington deleted 503,151 registrants (15.4% of total registrants) from the state voter rolls", and cites current examples.

Roots in discrimination

In 1959, the local Citizens Council, a white supremacist group with an organizational mission of maintaining racial segregation, together with a local election official removed 85% of the African American voters from the registration rolls of Washington Parish, Louisiana, under the guise of removing from the rolls all persons illegally registered. A court found that the Washington Parish purge was unconstitutional both in purpose and effect.[2] [7][8]

Articles and resources

Related SourceWatch articles


  1. U.S. Election Assistance Comm’n, The Impact of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 on the Administration of Elections for Federal Office 2005-2006: A Report to the 110th Congress, 50 (2007)
  2. 2.0 2.1 Myrna Pérez, Voter Purges (Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, 2008)
  3. Greg Palast, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (London: Pluto Press, 2002), 44–47.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Ford Fessenden, Florida List for Purges of Voters Proves Flawed, N.Y. Times, July 10, 2004, at A02.
  5. Marsha Shuler, Registrar Drops More than 21,000 from Voters Rolls, The Advocate, Aug. 17, 2007, at A10.
  6. Joe Gyan Jr., Study: N.O. Population Older, Less Poor, City Remains Majority Minority, The Advocate, Sept. 13, 2007, at A1 (reporting that New Orleans’ black population dropped from 67% before Hurricane Katrina to 58% a year later).
  7. See United States v. McElveen, 180 F. Supp. 10, 11-14 (E.D. La. 1960) (ruling that the removals were in violation of the Fifteenth Amendment and that the voters taken off the registration rolls were illegally removed) Id. at 14.
  8. Marsha Shuler, Registrar Drops More than 21,000 from Voters Rolls, The Advocate, Aug. 17, 2007, at A10.

External resources




News Stories

Tens of thousands of eligible voters in at least six swing states have been removed from the rolls or have been blocked from registering in ways that appear to violate federal law, according to a review of state records and Social Security data by The New York Times.