Since the 1965 Voting Rights Act, various states have instituted policies and systems such as voter ID laws, poll closures, voter intimidation and gerrymandering that have limited the voting ability of many U.S. citizens . Currently, one of the most significant threats to voting rights in Georgia is the ongoing efforts of public officials to remove eligible voters from voter registration rolls – which falls under the umbrella term of “voter purging,” defined as any removal of individuals from voter rolls . Voter purging, as well as other forms of disenfranchisement, have led to voter discouragement and reduced voting rates, particularly for minority demographics . This has contributed to Republican party domination in states such as Georgia, where Democrats generally rely on minority, low-income, and young voters who are disproportionately affected by voter purging. Under the guise of maintaining up-to-date, accurate rolls, these purges have resulted in widespread disenfranchisement that could have major effects on future Georgia elections.
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, voter purging rates have increased significantly since the previous decade. In Georgia, 750,000 more names were purged from voter rolls between 2012 and 2016 than between 2008 and 2012 . Purging names from voter rolls is an important part of election processes, ensuring that ineligible voters and duplicate names are removed from the lists. However, when officials abuse the process, many eligible voters find themselves unable to vote on election day.
Beyond the typical removal of voters who have moved, died, or otherwise become ineligible, Georgia regularly removes those who are considered inactive voters or whose voter registrations are flagged through the state’s “exact match” program. The exact match law requires the Georgia Secretary of State’s office to stall voter registrations that do not match other identification documents held by the state, such as driver’s licenses or social security records . Voters who make a mistake such as including a hyphen in their name on one document, but not on another, may have their registration status moved to “pending.” After 26 months, if the documents are not updated, the pending voter registration is canceled. Prior to the 2018 elections, about 53,000 Georgia voters had a pending status due to slight discrepancies in their names on state documents – 80 percent of those voters were African-American, Latinx or Asian-American .
Numerous analyses of the Georgia 2018 gubernatorial election have pointed to voter purges as a factor in the results . In the years preceding the 2018 election, the Secretary of State removed about 1.5 million voters from the rolls, including an estimated 107,000 simply because they had not been an active voter in the previous seven years . In approximately 60 percent of counties across Georgia, Black voters were removed from the voter rolls at a higher rate than their white peers for inactivity. In over 25 percent of those counties, Black voters were removed at a rate 1.25 times higher than their white counterparts .
However, voter purges were not a problem solely in 2018. In a December 2019 federal court decision, Judge Steve C. Jones ruled to permit the Georgia Secretary of State’s office to remove about 4 percent of registered voters from the rolls . “Proper list maintenance is not only required by long-standing laws but is also important in maintaining the integrity and smooth functioning of elections,” Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said in a statement . Despite claims that the most recent purge is routine maintenance, over 120,000 names included in this purge were removed simply because they had not voted since 2012 or they had not responded to state mailings .
One’s right to vote should not be dependent on the frequency they exercise that right. Public officials should eliminate Georgia’s “use it or lose it” law in order to ensure all eligible citizens are able to participate in the democratic system without being regular voters. In addition, state government officials should create strict criteria for reviewing purge lists. Once purge lists are created, officials have a responsibility to verify that all names belong to those who have died, moved, or otherwise become ineligible. When voters are removed from the voting rolls, the individuals should be notified so that they have the opportunity to update their voting registration before an election. These efforts have the potential to protect fundamental voting rights for many Georgia citizens and increase the fairness and accuracy of future election results.
Written by: Elena Gilbertson Hall