The story read like something straight out of Stalinist Russia. But this casualty list was in the United States in the 21st century. Virginia: 41,637 purged. Florida: 182,000 purged. Indiana: 481,235 purged. Georgia: 591,549 purged. Ohio: two million purged. With the flick of a bureaucratic wrist, millions of Americans—veterans, congressional representatives, judges, county officials, and most decidedly minorities—were erased. To be clear, they still had their lives, but in the course of simply trying to cast a ballot, they soon learned that as far as the government was concerned, they did not exist. They were electorally dead. Their very right to vote had disappeared into the black hole of voter roll purges, Interstate Crosscheck, and felony disfranchisement. Some of the walking dead were viscerally “angry.” Others fumed, “This is screwed up!” Most felt “like an outcast,” “empty and unimportant,” and one man was actually reduced to “crying right there in the county elections office.” These were the latest casualties in the war on democracy.
They had been eliminated by a GOP deftly wielding a law that had actually been designed to broaden access to the polls. The modern-day version of voter purging began in the aftermath of a dismal election. The 1988 presidential contest between Democrat Michael Dukakis and Republican George H. W. Bush not only brought out the racial dog whistle skills of GOP strategist Lee Atwater, who crafted the infamous Willie Horton ad, but it also resulted in one of the lowest voter-turnout rates since 1924. Barely 50 percent of age-eligible adults cast a ballot. Columbia University professor Richard Cloward identified the culprit. “When there’s no organizing structures to help people get registered, the voter registration barriers just sort of gradually erode the electorate.” In some counties in Mississippi, for example, the only place to register to vote was in the clerk’s office during traditional business hours. In other locales, such as Indianapolis, voter registration drives were hampered by a “rule” that doled out a maximum of 25 forms to each volunteer. Limited access to registration had a visible and disparate impact on the electorate. According to a report by Demos, a progressive think tank, while top income brackets achieved more than 80 percent voter registration rates, “from 1972 to 1992, voter registration among the lowest income quintile saw a nearly 18 percentage point drop—from 61.2 percent in 1972 to 43.5 percent in 1992.”
Congress, therefore, passed the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), also known as the Motor Voter law, in 1993. The statute’s opening preamble is clear. The right to vote “is a fundamental right.” And, it is “the duty of the Federal, State, and local government to promote the exercise of that right.” This obligation requires paying particular attention to “discriminatory and unfair registration laws and procedures” that “disproportionately harm voter participation by various groups, including racial minorities.” As a result, the NVRA expanded the venues for and standardized the process of registration. Now citizens could register at the Department of Motor Vehicles and public assistance and disability offices, as well as through the mail with a brand-new standardized federal form.
As important as this was—indeed, the number of registered voters increased by more than 3.3 million in just a few years—the lag time between the initial “concern” in 1988 and the passage of the law in 1993 was significant. During the negotiations, Republicans at first stalled, and then demanded a quid pro quo for increasing access to the ballot box. They insisted that the law had to require routine maintenance, scrubbing even, of the voter rolls. This would ensure that people who had moved out of the district or state and those who had died were no longer listed as eligible voters. It all sounded so reasonable and so mundane. Except it wasn’t. That innocuous language— just like Kit Bond’s demand to insert a requirement for voter IDs into the Help America Vote Act—became yet another weapon in the Republicans’ arsenal to disfranchise as many citizens as possible.
What the law requires and how it has been implemented are two different things. The NVRA mandates that election officials update the voter rolls regularly. There are, however, strict guidelines about who is removed, how that is accomplished, and why. And on each of these parameters, the GOP has violated not only the spirit of the law but the letter as well. The NVRA outlines that officials can remove someone from the roll of eligible voters if he or she requests it; has had a name change and didn’t notify authorities within 90 days; dies; is convicted of a felony that under state law renders them ineligible to vote; “has moved outside the county of registration or has registered to vote in another jurisdiction”; and after that does not respond to a follow-up inquiry, usually a mailing, from election officials concerning a change in status. Then, and only then, is the process of purging supposed to begin.
In other words, the trip wire is a two-step process triggered first by a change in status of the voter (name change, felony conviction, move) and then by an inquiry from a state election official about his or her continued eligibility to vote in that jurisdiction. Unfortunately, far too many secretaries of state have bypassed this carefully laid-out two-step process, ignored a change in status, and, instead, used one specific criterion (non-voting) that is expressly forbidden in the NVRA to wipe out otherwise eligible voters. The point of this illegal tactic is to cull the electorate of millions of citizens, most of whom are young, poor, and/or minorities, who statistically do not vote for Republicans and whose voting activities are often sporadic. Despite the targeting of key demographic groups, this wide-scale purging remains virtually undercover. It is effective, “powerful,” and “dangerous precisely because it is easy to justify to the public in the name of ‘keeping our voter rolls up to date.’”
Ohio has been in the forefront with this lethal maneuver. In fact, no state has been more aggressive or more consistent in attacking the heart of the NVRA. From 2011 to 2016, Secretary of State Jon Husted has wiped 2 million people from the state’s list of registered voters. Most important, 1.2 million of those have been eliminated solely because they voted infrequently. Yet the NVRA is crystal clear: people cannot be struck from the registration rolls simply because they did not vote in a few federal elections.
Nonetheless, that is exactly what happened to software engineer and Navy veteran Larry Harmon. In 2008, he eagerly voted in a historic presidential election. Four years later, however, Harmon sat out because he was somewhat disenchanted with President Barack Obama and partially swayed by Republican challenger Mitt Romney’s platform. Unable to choose, he deliberately chose not to vote. When the 2014 midterm elections came around, Harmon was not impressed with any of the candidates for Congress and, therefore, just stayed home. But in 2015, with a local initiative concerning legalized marijuana on the ballot, he wanted his voice to be heard and went to the polling place. There he received a rude awakening. To the State of Ohio, this veteran, this taxpayer, this citizen did not exist. At least not at the ballot box. When he stepped up to the table to show his ID, poll workers told him that he “could not vote.” He wasn’t registered. At first, Harmon “felt embarrassed and stupid,” then it began to sink in and he became “madder” and madder. How could he simply be erased like that? “I’m a veteran, my father’s a veteran, my grandfather’s a veteran,” he said, stewing; we fought “for the country . . . now they aren’t giving me my right to vote, the most fundamental right I have? I just can’t believe it.” As he dug deeper, as he learned that the sheer constitutionally protected act of not voting had just cost him his right to vote, he became more infuriated.
It turns out that in 1994, Ohio had “updated its elections law to add what is known as a ‘supplemental process’” to the NVRA. That means that “voters may be purged from the rolls after six years just because they didn’t vote—even if they are otherwise eligible.” Ohio, in other words, had flipped federal law on its head. “I’ve been paying my taxes, paying my property taxes, registering my car,” he said. “All the data was there for (election officials) to know” that he still lived in the same house, on the same block, in the same jurisdiction. He had not moved. Nor had he changed his name. He was Larry Harmon in 2008. He remained Larry Harmon in 2015. And he clearly had not died. In short, not one of the federal law’s requirements for the secretary of state to remove him from the rolls had occurred. He simply had not voted in two federal elections. But, in Ohio, despite the NVRA, apparently that was all it took.
Jon Husted argued that his office met its statutory obligations and mailed postcards to Harmon and millions like him alerting them that if they did not respond within thirty days, the process of removal would begin. “If this is really [an] important thing to you in your life, voting,” the secretary of state chided, “you probably would have done so within a six-year period.” That argument, however, misses the basic point: failure to vote is not a legal, viable reason to purge someone from the voter rolls.“In essence, Ohio has set up the equivalence of the old literacy tests, in which those Jim Crow states ensured that many of their citizens could not get a decent education and then turned around and required literacy to vote.”
Besides its sheer illegality, Ohio’s method had another fatal flaw: mailing postcards crammed with fine print is fraught with discriminatory impact. The Census Bureau, for example, uncovered that when it sends out mail, “white voters are 21 percent more likely than blacks or Hispanics to respond to their official requests; homeowners are 32 percent more likely to respond than renters; and the young are 74 percent less likely than the old to respond.” Thus, the differential response rates for Husted’s mailings translate into disproportionate purges in key neighborhoods of Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati—areas that are overwhelmingly minority and composed of renters and young adults.
In Cleveland, for example, whites make up only 34.5 percent of the residents while 50.1 percent of the city’s residents are black and 10.5 percent are Hispanic. Moreover, nearly 60 percent of homes in the city are rented, not owned. It is also a town where 69 percent of the voters went for Obama in 2012. By 2016, however, the percentage of Democratic voters had dropped to 66 percent, while the Republican share stayed virtually the same. That little bit of magic might be explained by the fact that “voters in neighborhoods that backed Obama by more than 60 percent in 2012” had more than twice as many registered voters purged “for inactivity” than “neighborhoods where Obama got less than 40 percent of the vote.” Indeed, more than one-fourth of the 200,000 Ohioans Husted purged from the voter rolls in 2015 were in Cuyahoga County alone, where Cleveland is located.
Moreover, despite Husted’s insistence on personal responsibility, the question of showing up regularly to vote is not solely an individual choice. For years, Ohio has taken an active role in culling the electorate and dissuading citizens from voting (or even having those votes count). Secretary of State Husted and his Republican predecessor Kenneth Blackwell have, for example, limited the number of polling stations for early voting in urban areas, thus creating untenable four-to-five-hour wait times in cities. These election officials have also tossed tens of thousands of absentee ballots, supposedly because they were cast on incorrect paper stock or had a spelling error. And, in a deposition, Husted’s top aide admitted that these so-called enforcement activities were actually targeted at the cities, while “white rural areas went nearly untouched.” In essence, the state has set up the equivalence of the old literacy tests, in which those Jim Crow states ensured that many of their citizens could not get a decent education and then turned around and required literacy to vote. Similarly, Ohio has set up a system whereby it blocks American citizens from voting and then purges them from the rolls . . . for not voting.
Ohio is not alone. Georgia and its secretary of state, Brian Kemp, have also mastered the art of the purge. Georgia has been so good at it, in fact, that even as its population climbed, its number of registered voters since 2012 has actually dropped. Kemp, it turns out, is a voter-suppression warrior who wears his triumphs in fighting nonexistent voter-impersonation fraud as a fundraising badge of honor while, all along, his “actions have undermined voting systems, election security and democracy in general.” He has displayed a tendency to consistently err on the side of disfranchisement: such as “when his office lost voter registrations for 40,000 Georgians, the vast majority of whom happened to be people of color”; and when his office leaked the social security numbers and driver’s license data of voters not once but twice; and when he refused to upgrade the voting machines throughout the state that had received an F rating because they were easily hackable and “haven’t been updated since 2005 and run on Windows 2000.”
Kemp had also “crusaded against” and “investigated” voter registration drives by Asian Americans and predominately black groups. He actually launched a criminal inquiry into the registration of 85,000 new voters, “many of them minorities,” but “found problems with only 25 of the registrants, and” not surprisingly, after all the time, money, and publicity, “no charges were filed.” Yet the intimidation was real—too real and too familiar. While Jim Crow Georgia had implemented a potent disfranchisement cocktail of literacy tests, poll taxes, and terrorism to keep the voting booth as white as possible, now, in the 21st century, James Crow Georgia has concocted its own witch’s brew of feigned innocence, the elimination of a million citizens for the sheer act of not voting, and a highly unreliable and therefore effective program called Exact Match.
Georgia’s perfidy has not gone unnoticed and has resulted in an onslaught of lawsuits from the NAACP, the ACLU, and the League of Women Voters. Kemp’s response, however, has been Orwellian. Confronted with 732,800 voters who, between October 2012 and November 2014, had their “registration status canceled ‘due to failure to vote’” and then the 591,548 who were wiped off the rolls just two years later, Candice Broce, a spokeswoman for Kemp’s office, took umbrage at the charge and explained that the “secretary of state’s office does not ‘purge’ any voters.” That’s just not a word that his office was willing to use. Instead, his staff explained, in language that the public would find reassuring, the elimination of more than one million citizens from the rolls was nothing more than “voter list maintenance . . . to safeguard . . . the integrity of the ballot box . . . and prevent fraud and ensure that all votes are cast by eligible Georgia voters.”“If a citizen doesn’t move and doesn’t change his or her name, there is absolutely no reason to contact the secretary of state’s office. None.”
Kemp’s specter of waves of people impersonating the dead to cast ballots in Georgia has been disproved repeatedly. Political scientists M. V. Hood III from the University of Georgia and William Gillespie from Kennesaw State University concluded that “after examining approximately 2.1 million votes cast during the 2006 general election in Georgia, we find no evidence that election fraud was committed under the auspices of deceased registrants.” A decade later, as the Washington Post reported, despite all the baying at the moon, there were no cases prosecuted in Georgia for voter impersonation fraud. Kemp, however, did not hesitate to raise the bogeyman of voter fraud to mask the state’s voter suppression efforts. The subterfuge continued as the secretary of state explained the rationale for wiping more than one million citizens from the rolls. Kemp argued that he was merely following state law and that the catalyst for removal was simply that the voter had had no contact with election officials over a span of seven years, not, as his critics charged, because of non-voting. The hocus-pocus in that statement is obvious. If a citizen doesn’t move and doesn’t change his or her name, there is absolutely no reason to contact the secretary of state’s office. None. It is not about changes of addresses or even name changes; it’s realizing that minorities, the poor, and the young are less likely to vote than affluent whites are. Just as the Mississippi Plan in the 1890s used the poll tax to identify the characteristics of those the state did not want to vote, Georgia’s twist of the law does something similar.
Even when they do vote, the poor, minorities, and the young are also more likely to move, to be more transient than the typical Republican voter. “I’ve had enough of that,” declared one woman who received Kemp’s pre-purge notice. No one is arguing that voter rolls shouldn’t be updated, she declared, but she moved to a home in the same county, in the same voting jurisdiction. Kemp’s notice, therefore, felt like harassment. It felt like the first step to kicking her off the rolls. Yet the NVRA is as clear on this point as it is about non-voting. If a “registrant who has moved from an address in the area covered by a polling place to an address in the same area,” he or she “shall be permitted to vote at that polling place upon oral or written affirmation by the registrant of the change of address before an election official at that polling place.” That is to say, under these circumstances, there should never be a purge notice or its attendant threat. Instead, the citizen simply informs the election official of the new address when he or she goes to vote. That’s the law. Except in Georgia.
From One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression is Destroying Our Democracy. Used with permission of Bloomsbury. Copyright 2018 by Carol Anderson.