Illegal Voter Purges Could Silence You at the Polls: Here’s Why by Logan Danker

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You want to be an active citizen in your community and you want your voice to be heard. You want to take a crucial step and vote. But if your state conducts voting purges, then your rights could be in jeopardy.

Voter purges are an incredibly common form of voter suppression. Purges occur when voters’ names are removed from the registration list in order to keep the system organized. For example, a state or county might remove voters who have moved out of the area because they can no longer vote there. Ensuring that voting systems are organized and efficient is a critical  aspect of maintaining a democratic system. However, illegal voting purges, conducted under the guise of protecting democracy, are, in actuality, stripping away the voting rights of countless Americans.

The practice of purging the voter rolls is often done incorrectly, causing people to be unregistered for no substantive reason. Many states are beginning to use more accurate data when conducting purges, but many areas still use inaccurate information which leads to illegal disenfranchisement. From 2013 to 2018, Florida, New York, Virginia, and North Carolina have illegally purged voter names, while Alabama, Arizona, Indianna, and Maine have implemented purge rules that violate the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (this legislation aims to increase voter participation, increase integrity of the voting system, and keep voter rolls accurate). These eight states contain more than a quarter of the registered voters in the country. 

With so many crucial states involved in purges, the effect on Americans is detrimental. In a 2018 Georgia election, 107,000 voters were purged who could have otherwise voted. Similarly, more than 200,000 names were illegally purged from voter rolls in Brooklyn during the 2016 presidential primary. In 2019, the state of Ohio published a list of over 235,000 people to be purged, 40,000 of which were incorrectly included. Illegal and incorrect voting purges lead to delays, uncertainty, and even total disenfranchisement for Americans who should have the right to vote. It is likely that these illegal activities will continue to put voters at stake in this year’s elections, so it is important you follow some steps outlined below to ensure your voice is heard.

Many states often engage in a “use it or lose it” form of voter purges, where people’s names are removed from the rolls if they have not voted in several previous elections. This is done under the often false pretext that people who have failed to turn out for multiple elections have probably moved or died. This practice is inaccurate and completely unnecessary for maintaining voter databases. The National Change of Address system operated by the U.S. Postal service is a substantially more accurate means of determining a voter’s current address than that voter’s previous participation in elections. Nevertheless, thousands of Americans’ voices are in jeopardy because of “use it or lose it” laws. 

Currently, the Wisconsin Supreme Court is deliberating on whether over 230,000 voters can be purged because they failed to respond to mail asking them if they changed residences. 70,000 people in Georgia were forced to re-register after being purged for voting inactivity, and 65 % of them wound up re-registering in the same county. In Ohio, voters were purged because they didn’t vote in previous elections and failed to respond to a postcard. About one third of these people never even had a chance of responding to the letter, because the postal service never delivered the postcard in the first place. With more accurate systems available to state government officials, there seems to be no reason for purges based on inactivity and how an individual responds to mail. The only logical motives are that officials cannot be bothered to use more accurate practices or that they are intentionally trying to disenfranchise voters.

What does all this mean for you? Simply put, registering to vote does not always mean that you will be able to cast your ballot on Election Day. If your name is wrongfully removed from the rolls, you could wind up having to cast a provisional ballot that may be rejected and never counted, face other delays, and be silenced altogether. Despite these challenges, there are a few ways to proactively ensure that your vote will be counted. Check to see if you are actively registered to vote online at Can I Vote or by contacting your county elections director, particularly if you have skipped previous elections but are excited about voting in the next one. Finally, explore the resources available online and at Brown Votes to ensure your voice is heard. Voting is our right as American citizens. Do all you can to exercise it. Don’t let yourself be a victim of illegal purging.


Brennan Center

APM Reports

 American Bar Association

Ohio Dispatch

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