In the past I have discussed voting rights and the attempts by some to limit or restrict certain groups’ right to vote. I have written about voter purges, voter ID laws and the reduction in the number of polling places. You won’t be surprised to hear that the voter purges are still going strong.
Wisconsin has been ordered by a judge to remove approximately 234,000 voters from the voting registration rolls.[i] The Wisconsin Election Commission sent a letter to 234,000 registered Wisconsin voters telling them they had to re-register because the commission believed they may have moved from the address on their registration. The list was generated using data from a multi-state database know as ERIC[ii] that tracks changes of address. The Commission’s letter said that these voters must re-register at their new address. The letter did not give a firm date for when they must re-register and said they would not be removed from the poll lists until after the Spring 2021 elections.[iii]
Well, some citizens were not satisfied with this procedure and brought a complaint before the Wisconsin Election Commission.[iv] The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty,[v] a self -described conservative activist group, alleged that Wisconsin law requires that any voter who does not reply to that notice within 30 days, shall be made ineligible to vote.[vi] They argued that the commission’s plan to let the questionable voters remain eligible until 2021 was a violation of the law.
Ozaukee County Circuit Judge Paul Malloy agreed and ordered the commission to immediately purge most of the list. Only 2,300 of those receiving the notice had responded at that time. That decision has been appealed, potentially to the Wisconsin Supreme Court which is controlled 5-2 by conservatives.
As I have discussed in my prior voting rights posts, these types of purges disproportionately targets Democratic and minority voters. Wisconsin has become a swing state. Its current Governor, Tony Evers, a Democrat, won his election by less than 30,000 votes.[vii] It is fairly clear that the removal of over 200,000 voters, disproportionately democrats, could swing the state in the 2020 presidential election.
It’s not just Wisconsin. Georgia is also seeking to purge about 300,000 voters.[viii] The recent Georgia gubernatorial election was dogged by allegations of voter suppression.[ix] Democrat Stacey Abrams lost to Republican Brian Kemp by less than 2% of the vote. During the campaign, Brian Kemp was the state’s Secretary of State, responsible for maintaining the state’s election rolls.
This time Georgia wants to purge those voters who have not voted or updated their registration in the past five years.[x][xi] A federal judge ruled that the voter purge could proceed and 120,000 voters will be removed from the rolls. Georgia is one of nine states that has “use it or lose it” voting laws.[xii] “Use it or lose it” laws essentially say that if you don’t vote in an election within a certain time period, your registration will be cancelled, even if your registration should still be valid. So, if you don’t vote, you lose the right to vote. None of our other rights work that way. You don’t lose the right to free speech if you don’t exercise it. You don’t lose the right to bear arms or to freely assemble if you don’t exercise them. Unfortunately the Supreme Court has held that these “use it or lose it” laws are acceptable.[xiii] Once again, this method will include many still eligible voters and disproportionately impact Democrats and minorities.
So, while all states have an obligation to maintain current and accurate voting rolls, the methods used by some states clearly target certain groups, and those groups tend to be Democrats and minorities. I’m also not suggesting the Democrats might not do something similar if they were in positions of power. It is wrong to deny any eligible citizen the right to vote. Too many eligible voters are swept up in these purges. As I have said previously, voting is a right. Starting in 1868 with the 14th Amendment guaranteeing full citizenship and voting rights to all men born on US soil, then to 1870 when the 15th Amendment eliminated racial barriers to voting and then 1920 when the 19th Amendment guaranteed the right to vote to women and then 1924 when the Indian Citizenship Act gave voting right to Native Americans, the country has made an effort to include more people in the voting process. Prior attempts to make voting more difficult, like a poll tax or literacy tests have been struck down. We shouldn’t be making it more difficult to vote. Any adult citizen has the right to vote and states that manufacture obstacles to that right are violating the Constitution and the spirit of our nation.
[ii] Electronic Registration Information Center is used by many states for this purpose
[vi] Wis.Stat. § 6.50(3)
[xi] O.C.G.A. § 21-2-234
The author[s] is solely responsible for this blog submission. It does not represent the position of the New York State Bar Association or its Committee.