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Was your voter registration purged? Why it might, and what you can do about it


Joseph Spector Madeleine O'Neill Terrence T. McDonald Sarah Gamard Candy Woodall   | USA TODAY NETWORK
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In New York, 1.2 million voters are currently listed the inactive voting list, leaving their ability to vote on Nov. 3 in question.

In neighboring New Jersey, 430,000 are deemed inactive, meaning they either hadn't voted in recent presidential elections or their status as a registered voter is uncertain.

Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, almost 376,000 voter registrations were canceled last year, more than 380,000 were canceled in 2018 and more than 479,000 were canceled in 2017.

So voters who might have not have gone to the polls in recent years and show up to vote on Election Day might be in for a surprise: Their vote may not count.

Voter purging can disenfranchise voters, particularly targeting communities of color, and can suppress totals across the nation, experts said.

"The whole concept is backwards. It’s about discouraging people from voting," said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY, which has sued and won to reform the purging of voters in New York.

It's a situation playing out in states, and in courtrooms, across the country.

Voters can be purged from voting rolls, or, even worse, removed erroneously, leaving them and poll workers confused on Election Day.

"Voter purges are an often-flawed process of cleaning up voter rolls by deleting names from registration lists," a 2018 report by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice said.

"Done badly, they can prevent eligible people from casting a ballot that counts."

Voters might be registered to vote, but that doesn't give them a lifetime license to vote. 

And in an election year filled with controversy over ensuring all votes are counted, purging of the rolls is an ongoing issue.

"It is an attempt to make it harder to vote. All of the onus in our country is on the voter," Lerner said.

Georgia removed 300,000 registrations last year. Wisconsin had a court battle over whether it must strip 200,000 names. 

Across the nation, states canceled 17.3 million registrations between the 2016 presidential election and the 2018 midterms, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

More: How safe are your election ballots? Here's what you need to know

How you could be purged from voting

Many states make voters inactive if they do not vote in two consecutive presidential elections, in addition to taking them off the rolls if they move or die.

In other words, if a voter went to the polls in the 2008 elections, but hasn't voted since, they could show up and be off the active rolls, which would require them to fill out an affidavit ballot and hope the state approves it.

But it is an imperfect process. 

Since 2013, Florida, New York, North Carolina and Virginia have conducted illegal purges, the Brennan Center found. The report said between 2014 and 2016, states removed almost 16 million voters from the rolls — which was 4 million more than were removed between 2006 and 2008.

The problems are pronounced and have led to reforms.

In 2017, after Common Cause sued, the New York City Board of Elections admitted in a legal settlement that it illegally removed the names of more than 200,000 people a year earlier.

In January, the New York Board of Elections lost a lawsuit brought by Common Cause. A federal judge found the state violated federal election law by making some voters as inactive and removing them from poll books on Election Day.

So it left inactive voters with no recourse, in many cases, or left poll workers uncertain what to do. In some cases, voters simply were turned away, Lerner said.

Now, New York needs to keep inactive voters on the poll books during elections. Then they would have to fill out an affidavit ballot.

“Tens of thousands of New York voters who appear at the polling place are going to be able to find their names on a list that they wouldn't have been able to find had this decision not been issued,” John Powers, an attorneys for one of the plaintiffs, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, told the WNYC/Gothamist after the ruling.

More: How your voter registration can expire in Pa. — and how to make sure you can vote Nov. 3

More: Voting rights: Texas voter purge is latest effort to target minority voters, activists say

Why states purge voters

Many states will start the process of purging voters if election boards check on their status by sending out postcards to their home addresses.

If the postcards are not returned and after two federal general election cycles, they are taken off the rolls pursuant to the National Voter Registration Act of 1994.

As for deaths or if people move to another states, election boards get death notice information and remove them, and if they get notified someone moved. The same process applies to felons or those deemed incompetent by the courts

Most counties do purges at the beginning of the year after the previous November’s general election and again following primaries.

In Delaware, voters rolls are purged every non-election year prior to June 1, according to Elections Commissioner Anthony Albence. 

The state’s purging process is largely based on federal law, such as mail not returned from a voter’s address, indicating that they no longer live there.

Some states will send a follow-up piece of verification mail, and if the voter does not respond to it in 60 days, they’ll be listed as “inactive.”

Delaware is also part of the Electronic Registration Information Center, a consortium of 31 states that shares voter registration and motor vehicle information with the goal of improving accuracy of the voter rolls.

It also expedites the purging process, Albence said: “It’s really helped us over the years."

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York County Commissioner Julie Wheeler shares what you need to know about voting
York County President Commissioner Julie Wheeler talks to the York Daily Record editorial board about voting in the upcoming election.

In Maryland, election officials will only remove a voter without further notice if the voter signs off on having his or her registration canceled or if the state receives notice that the voter has died.

A voter can be moved to inactive status if he or she moves and does not respond to follow up mail from election officials.

"A voter's failure to vote does not move them to the inactive list or result in their registration being canceled," the Maryland Board of Elections said in a statement.

More: What voters across the Northeast are saying about the presidential election

More: 'We're being silenced,' Smith Island residents say Maryland took away their voting rights

What happens if you show up and deemed 'inactive'?

An inactive voter also can still vote in Maryland. The names of inactive voters still appear in the state's electronic poll book, though the election judge will ask inactive voters to confirm their address.

Voter registrations are canceled in Pennsylvania every year because it's the law. The state and counties are bound by the National Voter Registration Act and state election code to clean up their voting rolls.

While the date to register to vote in many states have passed, Pennsylvania's deadline is Monday.

Voting rights groups said the U.S. should move to a model like Canada: every person when they reach age 18 is registered to vote. And states should not remove inactive voters from the rolls, they said.

"We would like permanent or automatic registration, but that's not the way state law works," said Suzanne Almeida, interim executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania.

Seventeen states, including Maryland, also has same-day voter registration, which means eligible voters can register and vote during early voting or on Election Day, so long as they bring proof of residence.

In New Jersey, mail from election officials – say, a sample ballot -- must be returned to sender to be classified as inactive. If the voter then misses two federal elections in a row, like other states, they are removed from the voter rolls.

The extra, mail-related step helps protect against disenfranchising votes, but still more reforms are needed, said Jesse Burns, executive director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.

“While keeping our rolls clean and updated is absolutely necessary, aggressive and flawed processes lead to eligible voters being purged without notice or remedy,” Burns said.

More: Learn before you vote: Delaware Online General Election Voters Guide

More: 2020 election: What to know about mail-in voting in Delaware

Includes reporting by USA TODAY.

Joseph Spector is the New York state editor for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at JSPECTOR@Gannett.com or followed on Twitter at @GannettAlbany.

Sarah Gamard is a state government reporter for the News Journal in Delaware. She can be reached at sgamard@delawareonline.com or followed on Twitter at @SarahGamard.

Madeleine O'Neill covers the Maryland State House for the USA Today Network. She can be reached at moneill@gannett.com or on Twitter at @maddioneill.

Terrence McDonald is a staff writer for the USA TODAY Network in New Jersey. He can be reached at mcdonaldt@northjersey.com or on Twitter at @terrencemcd.

Candy Woodall covers state government and politics in Pennsylvania for the USA TODAY Network. She can be reached at 717-480-1783 or on Twitter at @candynotcandace.

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