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Backroom Voter Suppression: Who Gets Knocked Off Voter Lists?

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Weekly Voting Rights News Update


State's voter rolls shrinking: The trend may seem unlikely considering Florida's growth, but a closer look shows a law is behind it – St. Petersburg Times

Like Worley, Alabama governor to miss judge's voting deadline – Associated Press, Times Daily

Two stories involving voter database set-up and maintenance hit the news this week, shedding some light on an obscure but important issue that can disenfranchise voters, depending on the rules created to implement it.

The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) requires states to create a computerized statewide database of all eligible voters. Governor Bob Riley of Alabama's legal advisor has notified a federal judge that the state will not reach compliance with the HAVA mandate until 30 to 60 days after the court-ordered deadline of August 31, according to Phillip Rawls of the Associated Press. Coordinating with the state Dept. of Public Health and the Administration Office of the Courts - which keep track of deaths and felons in the state, respectively - to be part of the database is creating delays and becoming a “'very complex interface.'” As of Wednesday, the Justice Department has not given the court a response.

This doesn't surprise former Secretary of State Nancy Worley, who originally worked on the database until last August, when she was sued by the U.S. Justice Department for missing the Jan. 1, 2006 deadline. She said she had told the federal judge last year that it would take until the fall to complete – about the same time Riley is now proposing. Claiming partisan politics, Worley, a Democrat, said the job was taken from her as part of a GOP plan to damage her and elect Republican Beth Chapman: “Because this was political, I'm not surprised a President Bush-appointed judge would take it away from a Democrat in what is the epitome of what we are seeing now as the politics of the Justice Department and give it to a Republican governor who said he could do it by August. Now, he's missed the deadline.”

List maintenance procedures, while necessary to maintain accurate data, are also prime targets for partisan mischief because of their direct bearing on the composition of the voting rolls. These rules are a surefire way to remove “unwanted voters” - including eligible ones – from the rolls and as such can be hidden mechanisms for inhibiting voter participation.

HAVA, in accordance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) require states to periodically remove ineligible voters from the statewide voter official voter list. States are responsible for developing specific standards for implementing a list maintenance program that is transparent, consistent and non-discriminatory. A lack of clear and specific criteria for performing list maintenance programs has resulted in inconsistent standards within states for federal elections. This is the case in Florida, where there are approximately 150,000 fewer voters than were on voter lists last November, according to writer Steve Bousquet of the St. Petersburg Times.

While Florida's population has flourished, the pool of voters is quickly diminishing. This is largely the result of a state law, amended in 2005, that requires vote purges in odd-numbered years. Voters who have moved and have not updated addresses, as well as those who have skipped two consecutive statewide elections, are deleted and must re-register. In Pinellas County alone, nearly one of every 10 voters who were registered last fall have been removed, Bousquet wrote.

Although states are not mandated to notify voters of their removal from the official voter list for felony conviction or death, NVRA does actually require notice be given to those who will be removed because of a change of address. Voters may not be removed from the list because they have moved unless they have either requested removal in writing or failed to respond to a notice of removal AND not voted in two federal elections. Under the unamended law, “election officials who were notified by the U.S. Postal Service that a voter had moved could update the voter's records and contact the voter at the new address.” As amended, however, the law shifted responsibility for voting status changes to voters and required election officials to send reminders to the voter's old address, a measure Secretary of State Kurt Browning called “'inane.'”

“It's just crazy,” Browning said. “The whole idea is to keep people on the voter registration roll.” He said he would ask policymakers to change the law back, which would help voters who move frequently stay registered and able to vote. Low income mobility rates are greater than that of the affluent and are thereby more likely to be knocked off the rolls because of problems with updating addresses. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 37% of people earning less than $15,000 per year moved between 2000 and 2005, compared to about 35% of those earning $100,000 or more. An even greater mobility rate is notable among people of color, who are over-represented in low income populations and thus, are more likely to be removed from the rolls than whites. Nearly half of Latinos (49%) and 41% of Blacks changed residency between 2000 and 2005 compared to 38% of whites.

Voter list problems have also cropped up in the recent past in Kentucky and Washington. In a broad interpretation of the state laws, Kentucky officials concluded that voters whose names later appeared on the voter databases of near-by states, Tennessee and South Carolina, had implicitly requested removal from the Kentucky voter list. In Washington, the Republican Secretary of State successfully lobbied the Legislature to pass a strict “No Match, No Vote” policy as part of a broad HAVA-implementation and election reform bill. The rigid list-matching rules required exact matches between voter registration, Social Security and Department of Motor Vehicle databases. In both cases, Project Vote took action and helped end the practices. Particularly, in Washington, we led the coalition that helped the state adopt more flexible data-matching rules.

By passing legislation or regulations that encourage eligible voters to stay registered and by opening the process to public scrutiny, states can short-circuit behind-the-scenes attempts to manipulate the voter rolls for partisan advantage, avoid the disenfranchisement of eligible citizens, and begin to restore public confidence in election results.

With primaries fast approaching, the actual mechanics of how elections work are gaining a higher profile in the media and in the minds of actors in electoral politics. These issues affect everything from who makes the rolls, to how voting occurs, to whose votes get counted. We’ve provided links below for more information on list maintenance that voter participation advocates can use to advocate for public policies, rules, and regulations that broaden access to the polls, rather than restrict them.

Quick Links:
“Maintaining Current and Accurate Voting Lists.” Project Vote.
“Geographical Mobility: 2000-2005.” U.S. Census Bureau.

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