How States Purge Voters From the Rolls

A stack of voter registration cards marked VOID accompanied by small text that sasy "EXPLAINER" and large text that says "Voter Roll Purges"

Recently, voter purges have become a tool wielded by Republicans to purge otherwise eligible voters from the rolls. But how does a voter purge actually work? As it turns out, canceling a registration isn’t always as simple as deciding a registration is outdated and then removing it from the voter rolls. The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) creates a general procedure states are supposed to follow when removing registrations. This process is intended to safeguard eligible voters, but that doesn’t mean people can’t be wrongly removed. In this Explainer, we walk you through the voter purge process to show how valid registrations can end up being canceled. Note that this is a general overview — the specifics vary between states and can differ depending on the reason your registration is canceled.

Step 1: Your voter registration is flagged for removal.

First, a state has to decide that your registration may be outdated and eligible for removal. States use data from a variety of sources to try to identify voters that have moved, died or have otherwise become ineligible. A few states also flag registrations if the voter hasn’t voted recently, in some as little as two consecutive elections. But none of these methods for identifying outdated registrations is foolproof and errors can happen — sometimes frequently. If the state uses bad data, or doesn’t compare the data to the voter rolls in a systematic way with safeguards, valid registrations can be flagged for removal.

Imagine you have a very common name. Someone with the same name as you might move out of state and your state could find out about that move, but rather than flag their registration, state officials accidentally flag yours instead. Without your knowing — and without doing anything wrong — your voter registration is now at risk of being canceled.

Step 2: The state sends you a notice to confirm your eligibility.

Identifying potentially outdated registrations is just the first step. After doing so, many states will send a notice to voters in the form of a prepaid postcard (and in some cases NVRA requires this). These cards are supposed to notify voters that their registration has been flagged and give them an opportunity to either provide a new address to the state if they’ve moved or let the state know they were flagged by mistake.

Once your registration is flagged for potentially moving, the state will mail you one of these notification cards. But in an increasingly digital world, you might not check your physical mail very frequently. Even if you do, you might not recognize that this postcard is anything more than spam and end up throwing it out. Or — given the problems with the mail system — you may never receive it in the first place. 

Step 3: Your registration is removed.

After the state mails you a notice and you don’t respond — for whatever reason — then the state can proceed to remove your registration. Since elections officials flagged your registration because they think you moved, in this case the NVRA requires the state to wait for at least two separate federal elections before removing you. If you vote in either of those elections, then the state won’t proceed with removing your registration. But if you don’t — and in America, not voting in two consecutive federal elections is not at all uncommon — your registration will be removed. Importantly, this will happen without any notice to you at all and you may not find out until it’s too late.

Step 4: You try to vote and can’t.

Even though you didn’t vote in the last few elections, that doesn’t mean you won’t in the future. After all, nothing in the right to vote requires you to vote. Americans are free to not participate in the electoral process if they don’t want to. Perhaps you didn’t like any of the candidates or live in an uncompetitive district. Or maybe you didn’t vote because you had trouble taking time off work or were unable to make it to the polls.

That all could change by the next election. Maybe there’ll be a candidate you’re excited about or you find a way to ensure you’re able to get to the polls. But once you get to the polling place, you’ll discover that your registration has been canceled. And if you live in one of the 29 states that don’t allow same-day registration, you won’t be able to re-register and vote in that election. Due to a mistake the state made years ago, you’ve now lost your right to vote.

Purging leads to voters becoming disenfranchised through no fault of their own.

As this hypothetical demonstrates, voter purges can lead to voters losing one of their most important rights without doing anything wrong. Voters can even end up being purged simply because they chose not to vote for whatever reason. While conducting programs to remove ineligible voters is a necessary part of keeping the voter rolls up to date, too often it leads to disenfranchisement when done with insufficient safeguards.