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Jessica Neal, NAACP
Published: 26 June 2012

With what many believe will be a very close presidential race in November, several states, including Florida and Texas, have begun a controversial process of purging names from voter rolls.  

Cleaning voter rolls has long been a legal and systemic tool for preserving the integrity of the vote. The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) requires states to remove the names of ineligible voters from rolls. The Helping America Vote Act, or HAVA, also requires "list maintenance."

However, the controversy emerges because recent mass purges have used faulty methods and inaccurate data to create purge lists replete with errors, targeting large percentages of minorities, young voters, and Democrats, close to or within election season.  The targeted groups are often attacked under the guise of purging convicted felons, dead voters, and most recently, non-citizens.

Florida's mass voter purge in 2000 targeted former offenders, claiming mass felony voter fraud. The list purged over 1,100 voters who were wholly eligible to vote.

"The close election and unlawful disenfranchisement of over 1,100 voters in 2000 represented a true loss of election integrity," said Adora Obi Nweze, NAACP Florida State Conference President.  "Our election system, including the cleaning of rolls, should always be implemented in a way that protects all eligible voters and encourages voter participation."

Similarly, Texas has purged over 300,000 individuals from the rolls. For Texans under 30, the largest demographic in the 2008 electorate, one in five voters' registration was suspended.   According to the Houston Chronicle, an additional 1.5 million voters could be purged from the rolls if they fail to update their records or vote for two consecutive federal elections.

Between 2011 and 2012, voter identification and voter registration laws have been at the forefront of voter suppressive tactics. The legislative process, however, is limited to state sessions, executive orders, and the confines of Federal law. While conducting voter purges, states have taken to implementing mandates outside the parameters of federal law.

"Purges are more likely to pick up outside legislative sessions," said Hilary Shelton, Senior Vice President of Advocacy and Policy and the Director of the Washington Bureau. "However, purges outside of the 90-day limitation can be enacted throughout the year and often under little oversight, leaving room for states to pursue purges that can largely impact those wholly eligible to vote."

The NVRA excludes purging within 90-days of a Federal election. Additionally, the law states that purges can be conducted only in a way that is "uniformed, nondiscriminatory, and in compliance with the Voting Rights Act."

According to the Miami Herald, however, Florida's latest purge is 58 percent Hispanic and 14 percent black, demographics historically more likely to vote as Democrats.  

Other purge efforts use voter caging, the practice of challenging ballots or removing voters from rolls if their voter identification or registration card is returned as undeliverable. The method does not account for clerical or postal errors and mainly impacts transient populations; typically minority or poor populations, as well as victims of the housing crisis.  

The numbers are large. In 2004, 35,000 Ohioans were caged, but by September of 2008, the Los Angeles Times reported that over 573,444 notices were returned as undeliverable among only five Ohio counties.

"Purges conducted via voter caging help broaden the impact of restrictive legislation, by also suppressing those most affected by foreclosure and homelessness," Jotaka Eaddy, Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director of the Voting Rights Initiative at the NAACP. "The combination of current caging methods, the rhetoric surrounding voter fraud, and new restrictive laws will only suppress the vote of otherwise lawful elderly, poor, and minority voters."

In 2012, advocates for restrictive voter laws are faulting non-citizen voters for diminishing the integrity of the vote.

"Because of his action today, it is very likely that dozens of aliens—illegal or not illegal—will get on the Kansas voter rolls," Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach told The Associated Press in response to the Kansas Legislature's decision to wait until 2013 to implement proof of citizenship voter legislation.

However, claims like Secretary Kobach's are not supported by voter registration and voter turnout data.   According to Census data on registration and voting, nearly 58 percent of the national voting age population voted in 2008. Of those, only 96 voters might not have been citizens. In 2010, that number decreased. Nearly 42 percent of the voting age population casted ballots and only 24 voters were not included in the citizen list.

Naturalized citizen registration and voting, a demographic more likely to be disenfranchised by purges using outdated citizenship data, has decreased since 2008 although the naturalized voting age population has grown.  

Voter turnout for the total U.S. voting age population has also decreased and over 50 percent of the population did not vote in 2010 gubernatorial elections.

"Increasing registration and voter participation is also essential to preserving the integrity of our election," said Eaddy. "Instead, the fear mongering and focus on mass voter purges across the country suppresses the vote, systemically supplementing failed legislation and augmenting successful restrictive laws."

Recently the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Florida based on the National Voter Registration Act, alleging the use of inaccurate data and violation of the 90-day quiet period, noting the agencies commitment to "protecting the rights of eligible citizens to register and vote free from unlawful burdens" while ensuring the integrity of federal elections.

Florida is expected to continue purging names from a list of 182,000 suspected non-citizens before elections.

While state voter purges, including Texas and Florida, have been highly publicized, eligible voters purged from the rolls across the United States might not know their status until Election Day.

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