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Recent news of voter roll purges in Georgia and Wisconsin highlights the high stakes for democracy. While election officials insist they are just undergoing routine efforts to keep the voter rolls clean, these purges illustrate the ways modern voter suppression wraps itself in seemingly innocuous administrative provisions implemented without concern for the potential burden on voters. Trimming the rolls may seem insignificant at first glance, but coupled with polling site closures and consolidations, voter ID laws, and more, there can be a real impact on election outcomes with hundreds of thousands of voters seeing their rights stripped away.

In Georgia, even if you “use it,” you may still “lose it”

Purges are a growing yet often overlooked and underreported occurrence, and the politics of purges are messy. In Georgia, officials have become known for rushing to purge voters and then dragging their feet in adding new registrants to the rolls. Indeed, ahead of the 2018 midterm election, it is estimated Georgia’s then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp purged over 1 million people from the state’s voter rolls and then delayed adding those who were newly registered. His successor, Brad Raffensperger, has continued the trend: on December 16, more than 300,000 registered voters were removed from the rolls.

Aimee Castenell, Southeastern Region Communications Director for the Working Families Party, just happened to check her voter registration status on a whim earlier this month only to find out she was no longer registered. In Georgia, election officials rely on a “use it or lose it” policy. This means that if a Georgia voter doesn’t exercise their right to vote within a certain number of election cycles, they will be removed from the rolls. However, in Castenell’s case she used it and lost it anyway. She is an active voter who last cast a ballot in the 2018 midterm elections. She never received notice of the purge. Anecdotal accounts suggest Castenell is not alone.

Last year, the New Georgia Project released a video featuring Dr. Lindsay Holliday of Macon, GA describing how, ahead of the 2018 election, he received a warning that he was slated to be rendered “inactive” on the voter rolls after failing to receive delivery of a prior notice from the Secretary of State. After investigating, Holliday came to the conclusion that the original notice had been intentionally designed to be undeliverable.

Legal challenges remain a useful tool in fighting these attacks on voting rights, although they are not always immediately successful. Fair Fight Action filed an emergency motion in federal court seeking to stop the most recent purge in Georgia, but the judge allowed it to go forward pending further developments in the lawsuit. Founded after the conclusion of Stacey Abrams’ campaign for governor, Fair Fight Action is an advocacy organization tasked with addressing persistent violations of voting rights and electoral procedure uncovered during the 2018 election.

“Georgians should not lose their right to vote simply because they have not expressed that right in recent elections, and Georgia’s practice of removing voters who have declined to participate in recent elections violates the United States Constitution,” said Fair Fight Action CEO Lauren Groh-Wargo in a statement.

Groh-Wargo also pointed to the current Secretary of State’s failure to comply with the new election reform law he championed.  

“Moreover, the Secretary of State, who advocated changes to Georgia’s election law earlier this year and applauded passage of House Bill 316, is now attempting to violate that very law, which mandates a longer timetable before voters can be removed under ‘use it or lose it.”

According to voting rights activists, 4,500 voters took action to “reactivate” their registrations ahead of the mid-December purge deadline, and as a result of the legal pressure, the Secretary of State reinstated 22,000 previously purged voters to the rolls. Those voters who were previously removed for being “inactive” will now have until 2021 to move to active status.

Wisconsin voters must look to the legislature

In October, the Wisconsin Election Commission (WEC) was sued by a conservative group alleging its process for addressing a planned purge of more than 230,000 registered voters did not comply with state law. Wisconsin sends letters to registered voters who are believed to have moved, requiring them to re-register or face deactivation of their registration. A statement on the WEC website quotes Wisconsin’s election chief Meagan Wolfe saying, “If you move, even to an apartment in the same building, you must update your voter record by reregistering.” The statement further read that letters would be sent “to voters who have told another government agency that they have moved recently. These voters may have changed their address with the post office, updated their address with the Wisconsin DMV or applied for a driver’s license in another state.”

As reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, in the most recent mailing the highest concentration of notices went to Democratic strongholds. It was estimated that 55% of the letters were sent to areas where former Secretary Hillary Clinton won more votes than Donald Trump in 2016. More than one-fifth of the voters to be purged are from Milwaukee County, one of Wisconsin’s most heavily-Democratic areas.

Earlier this month, Ozaukee County Judge Paul Malloy issued an oral decision in the lawsuit addressing the planned purge, ruling that state law required the election commission to deactivate voters who don’t respond within 30 days of receiving the “mover mailing” notice. Malloy further explained, “I don’t want to see anybody deactivated, but I don’t write the legislation.” He suggested the Commission go back to the legislature if they wanted a change in the time frame for deactivating voters once notice is sent.

Judge Malloy’s challenge illustrates the limits of judicial intervention in protecting voting rights, since judges are largely constrained by what policies the legislature chooses to enact. Where legislators support policies that encumber the registration and voting processes with administrative procedure instead of working to make the vote more accessible, situations like the one in Wisconsin are often the result. Because state legislatures are often the only forum left for protecting and upholding a host of voting-related rights, it’s more important than ever to have champions of democracy in state houses across the country.

Since Malloy’s decision, a Wisconsin Court of Appeals denied a request from the Wisconsin Department of Justice to place the decision on hold, and the Wisconsin Supreme Court has not announced whether it will hear the case. Meanwhile the Wisconsin chapter of the League of Women Voters has filed suit in federal court alleging the purge is a violation of the 14th Amendment’s due process clause.

Such constitutional protections are especially important in Wisconsin because it’s one of just six states not covered by the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA). Arguably, had Wisconsin been required to comply with the NVRA, at least some of the voters slated for removal would remain on the rolls. Specifically, Section 5 of the NVRA provides that actions taken through a motor vehicle agency “must serve as a simultaneous voter registration application.” This would include changes of address in the process of obtaining a license or state ID.  In addition, Section 8 of the NVRA provides that removal from the voter rolls based on change of residence is based on the voter changing their address to a place outside of the jurisdiction where they were previously voting. In other words, moving to another apartment in the same building would not drop a voter from the rolls.

Although Wisconsin permits same-day voter registration with photo ID and proof of address, advocates remain concerned about ongoing efforts to deter people from accessing the ballot. Angela Lang, Executive Director of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC) called the current purge confusing.

“I think this is another attempt to confuse voters and make people believe it’s harder to participate in their democracy. We know how powerful our voice is in 2020 and this is why they want to confuse people. If our vote didn’t have any power, they wouldn’t try so hard to suppress it,” said Lang.

BLOC is a Milwaukee, WI based advocacy organization committed to civic engagement and building long term political power in Black communities across Wisconsin. BLOC employs a range of organizing tools and tactics that further The BLOC Agenda, a reflective community visioning process aimed at helping communities move from surviving to thriving.

Reflecting on BLOC’s work since starting post-2016, Lang explained that the current purge is why the year-round nature of their work is so important.

“Year-round grassroots organizations are key in making sure we are tackling these issues now and not waiting until October 2020. We will continue to engage in every way possible to make sure people understand how to participate in all four elections next year,” she said.  

Anoa Changa

Anoa Changa is a journalist and organizer focused on innovating electoral justice coverage. Follow her on Twitter at @thewaywithanoa.