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Ohio is the latest state to see action in the ongoing obstacle of people being deleted in mass purges from statewide voter rolls. In July, county boards of elections sent last-chance notices to 235,610 voters in Ohio, warning them that their registrations could be canceled last Friday. Ohio state law allows the cancellation of registrations for voters who have not cast ballots for six years if they do not respond to a confirmation notice after the first two years or take other action. But an investigation by The Columbus Dispatch found that more than 1,600 voters were on the purge list who had actually voted since confirmation notices were sent out, including 110 who cast ballots in the 2018 mid-term election. Additionally, thousands of Ohio voters were sent last-chance notices even though the state’s voter online registration site said they were active.
Upon closer inspection the inaccuracies became even larger — the Ohio Secretary of State stumbled upon registration discrepancies from a financial audit in four counties, where about 1,100 people mistakenly were sent last-chance notices. Voting rights groups, including the League of Women Voters of Ohio, also pointed out discrepancies by combining their own website data with information from the county boards of elections to discover more than 20,000 registrations in Franklin County were incorrect in the state’s database. Thanks to the work of election watchdogs like these, thousands of voter registrations were saved from the purge list set for removal on Friday, but it is still unclear how many registrations have been saved overall.
This current issue, now playing out in Ohio, represents a much larger problem nationally. Between 2016 and 2018, the number of voters purged from state voter rolls included almost 17 million people. Although this number only slightly increased from the 16 million removed between 2014 - 2016, it represents a substantial uptick from the 13 million removed between 2004 - 2006. An August 2019 report by the Brennan Center, which analyzed data from the June 2019 Election Assistance Commission (E.A.C.) findings, determined that “counties with a history of voter discrimination have continued purging people from the rolls at much higher rates than other counties.”
Voter roll purging occurs when election officials attempt to remove ineligible names from voter registration lists. The process is often flawed. When done correctly, purging voter rolls ensures that information is accurate and up-to-date. When done incorrectly, purges can disenfranchise legitimate voters and be heavily skewed to affect a particular demographic, which is a form of discrimination that often flies under the radar. Typically, states are choosing to enact this kind of voter deletion when it is too close to an election to rectify the mistake and the type of confusion and delay at the polls tends to lower voter turnout overall.
The reason for this jump in voter purging is a result of the 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder, which severely weakened the protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (V.R.A.) by diminishing state requirements for implementing voting law changes. Before the Shelby County decision, Section 5 of the V.R.A. required jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to submit proposed changes in voting procedures to the federal government in a process known as “preclearance.” The result was a 40% increase in the median purge rate over the 2016–2018 period in jurisdictions previously subject to preclearance that were now no longer restricted by federal regulations, as compared to jurisdictions that were never hindered by Section 5 discrimination provisions. The Brennan Center concluded in its 2018 report that Shelby County was responsible for the purge of 2 million voters over four years in counties that would have previously been protected by Section 5 provisions and it was concluded that the effect of the 2013 Supreme Court Decision had not abated.
Statewide mistakes like those recently in Ohio have been happening for years. In Virginia in 2013, nearly 39,000 voters were removed from the rolls when the state relied on a faulty database to delete voters who allegedly had moved out of the commonwealth. On April 19, 2016, thousands of eligible Brooklyn voters attempted to cast a ballot in the presidential primary, but their names were absent from voter lists after the New York City’s Board of Elections had improperly deleted more than 200,000 names from the voter rolls.
In June 2016, the Arkansas Secretary of State tried to purge more than 7,700 names from voter rolls based on felony convictions, but the list included people who had never had felony convictions, as well as people whose voting rights had been restored. These are just a few examples of what continues to be a nationwide epidemic and we are still unsure as to the full extent these types of mass purges had on the 2016 Presidential Election.
What has become increasingly clear with the publication of all of this data is that areas with larger minority populations are at risk for deceptive election practices. With the attempt by the Trump administration to establish a Voter Fraud Commission, that was in itself a fraud and attempts by Republicans to systematically gerrymander their way to victory, the need for vigilance has never been stronger. Given the faulty nature of voter machines and the fact that Russia successfully targeted election systems in all 50 states during the last presidential election, we have some real problems headed into 2020.
It’s imperative that each American voter protect their vote and there are many things you can do to help combat this problem. Be sure to periodically check your voter registration status here and pass this information on to others so that they check their status. Know the deadline for registering to vote in your state (typically 30 days or less before an election) and be sure to check your status online before that deadline in case you need to re-register. Pass this article on to others and tell everyone you know about what is happening to disenfranchise voters. Utilize social media to create awareness and to alert people about what is happening in their areas. Most importantly, help to register more like-minded voters who will elect leaders that will enact new legislative voting protections moving forward.
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Amee Vanderpool writes the “Shero” Newsletter and is an attorney, contributor to Playboy Magazine, analyst for BBC radio and Director of The Inanna Project. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow her on Twitter @girlsreallyrule.