List maintenance — when states go through their voter rolls periodically to delete outdated registrations — is a necessary step to administering elections in the United States. But when done without proper safeguards, this routine process can lead to the removal of otherwise eligible voters, known as a voter purge. Alarmingly, a number of Republican-led states in the last few years have enacted laws that could make voter purges more likely. Here, we highlight some of these laws and how they could impact voters in those states.
Voter purges are increasing in frequency and risking the voting rights of minority voters.
The volume and frequency of purges has increased in recent years. The 2013 U.S. Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder eliminated the need for many states and counties with a history of discrimination in voting practices to get permission from the federal government before making changes to their voting policies, including purges. Since then, the number of purges has increased in jurisdictions that were previously required to get permission before enacting certain voting laws. Additionally, in 2018 the U.S. Supreme Court permitted states to purge infrequent voters from the rolls, enabling even more states to remove voters simply because they chose not to vote in a previous election, a burden that will fall disproportionately on low-income and minority voters. Republican states are also scouring their voting rolls to try to remove noncitizens, a crusade that endangered the voting rights of thousands of naturalized U.S. citizens in Texas.
The increase in laws permitting purges is likely linked to the election denying rhetoric so popular among the GOP these days. If we were to get in the minds of election deniers, it’s not hard to see why these laws are on the rise. Since they believe, falsely, that there are lots of ineligible voters voting in American elections (and voting in large enough numbers to swing election outcomes), removing registrations may seem like a logical solution.
These states recently passed laws that could lead to more voter purges:
Arizona Republicans enacted two laws related to voter purges — one in 2021 and the other earlier this year. The first was included in a budget bill with a hodgepodge of policy changes and would have required the Arizona secretary of state to allow any individual or organization designated by the Legislature to access the state’s voter rolls. If this individual or organization deems any registration on the rolls as ineligible, election officials are required to remove it — without providing notice to the voter. This bill, however, was ultimately struck down by the state Supreme Court for violating the state constitution.
The second law is House Bill 2243, which Gov. Doug Ducey (R) signed into law in July — despite vetoing an almost identical bill earlier this year. The law requires county recorders to cancel registrations if they receive information suggesting that the voter is not qualified to vote due to noncitizenship, change of address or death. When Ducey vetoed the earlier bill, he said the requirement “is vague and lacks any guidance for how a county recorder would confirm” a voter’s qualifications. He also suggested that “bad actors” could use the bill to “falsely allege a voter is not a qualified elector.” While a spokesperson for Ducey said changes to the bill met his concerns, voting rights groups fear the bill’s lack of safeguards will block Arizona citizens from being able to cast their ballots.
Florida’s new Senate Bill 524, which Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) signed into law in April, received most of its attention for creating a new special force to investigate election crimes. But it also included a myriad of other voting restrictions, such as provisions related to list maintenance. S.B. 524 increases the frequency of removals and requires elections officials to use data from other government agencies to identify ineligible voters, including potential noncitizens. The law also makes it harder for voters to reactivate their registrations — previously, voters just had to update their registrations or vote to reactivate them. Now, they also have to confirm their residential addresses to remain on the rolls.
Iowa’s Senate File 413, one of a pair of comprehensive voter suppression laws enacted last year, increases the risk of Iowans having their registrations canceled. Previously, Iowa voters could be placed on the inactive voter list if they did not vote in two successive general elections. S.F. 413 accelerates this process, marking any voter who doesn’t vote in a single election as inactive and kickstarting a process that could end in their removal from the voter rolls simply because they chose not to vote for whatever reason.
In April 2021, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear (D) signed a bipartisan voting bill into law that made several key reforms to Kentucky elections, like early voting, drop boxes and voting centers. But the bill also included some provisions that could risk voter purges — the law requires registrations to be deleted within five days of receiving a notice that they registered in a new jurisdiction like another state. The law doesn’t require voters be notified in case the information is wrong or there are mistakes, leaving voters with no recourse to prevent their registrations from being wrongly canceled.
Mississippi’s House Bill 1510, signed into law by Gov. Tate Reeves (R) in April, imposes a documentary proof of citizenship requirement on new voters. Like a similar law in Arizona, the requirement likely violates federal law. The law also requires election officials to crosscheck databases to see if voters are noncitizens. If flagged, voters have to prove their citizenship within 30 days or else they will be removed. Since citizenship databases are unreliable and often inaccurate, the law could result in the purging of actual citizens — particularly naturalized ones — from the voter rolls.
While Texas’ omnibus voter suppression law, Senate Bill 1, has gotten a lot of attention, you might not have heard of its voter purge provisions. S.B. 1 increases the frequency of purges, requires the removal of voters thought to be noncitizens without notice and imposes penalties on election officials if they don’t comply. As one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuits challenging S.B. 1 notes, if officials aren’t careful in their efforts, “eligible voters may be purged from the voter register,” an impact that will have “a disparate impact on Latino voters.”
Utah’s House Bill 12, signed into law in February 2021, modifies the state’s procedures for removing deceased voters from the polls. The law requires county clerks to cross-reference all death certificates and remove voter registrations within 10 days. But since the law doesn’t require any notice to voters, or require auditing the data for accuracy, it increases the risk that officials will remove the wrong names by mistake.
The disparity between the states highlights the need for a federal solution.
While these laws are all a little bit different from each other and may seem somewhat innocuous, they all lack safeguards and make it more likely for routine list maintenance to turn into purges and result in otherwise eligible voters losing their right to vote. The disparities between different states in how they maintain their voter rolls only underscores the need for national safeguards to ensure everyone’s right to vote is protected equally and that no one is improperly removed.
Thankfully, Congress has the power to regulate how states conduct list maintenance and protect voters — a power used before when the federal legislature passed the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) in 1993. While the NVRA has some protections for voters, the recent wave of voter purge provisions in state laws shows how inadequate the federal safeguards are. All of the voting rights bills proposed by Democrats during the current session of Congress would have protected voters from purges. The Freedom to Vote Act would have required states to notify individuals within 48 hours of their removal and provide ways for these individuals to contest their removals while a previous iteration, the For the People Act, contained several additional safeguards to ensure states are only removing the correct names.
But a solution to voter purges doesn’t have to be anything as sweeping as those two laws. Simply enacting same-day registration — as 21 states have already done — would be an important safeguard against purges. If a voter is improperly removed, they can simply re-register when they go to vote and ensure they’re still represented in the political process.