While voter empowerment efforts, broadly speaking, did well in the 2018 elections, those victories were not the end of the struggle, as shown by new analysis of Election Assistance Commission data from the Brennan Center for Justice.
The Brennan Center found that between 2016 and 2018, a total of 17 million voters were purged from voter rolls, keeping pace with the sharp rise in voter purges seen after 2012. These purges happened more commonly in states that had Republican administrations, the data shows. This should come as little surprise to those who followed the run-up to the 2018 elections.
Prior to the election in 2016, Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted made it a policy to purge anyone who did not vote in 2014 or 2012. This made it to the Supreme Court in 2018 where, in a 5-4 decision in Husted v. Philip Randolph Institute, the conservative majority upheld the two consecutive elections measure as a means to slash voter rolls, this despite only 31 credible instances of actual voter fraud out of more than one billion ballots cast nationwide in the fourteen years prior to Ohio’s decision.
The Trump administration then pushed Kentucky to purge its voter rolls. They didn’t need to push Georgia, however, because then-Secretary of State and now Governor Brian Kemp (R) purged 670,000 registrations prior to an election he was running in. And in Texas, the Republican Secretary of State had to resign in disgrace earlier this year after an investigation into 98,000 voter registrations flagged as being for non-citizens infringed on the rights of voters of color and had to be abandoned after thousands of flagged voters were found to actually be U.S. citizens.
It should be noted that this kind of voter suppression isn’t uniquely Republican — New York City purged hundreds of thousands of legal voter registrations in 2016, though most of the voters purged illegally were still Democrats.
Despite some impressive turnout even where purges take place, they do still have a real impact. Thousands of legal, eligible voters get purged during these wide-ranging operations and often don’t find out until they show up at their polling place.
And Brennan’s data shows clearly the newest stories of voter suppression through voter roll purges — from Wisconsin and Virginia purging 14% of their voter rolls, to Indiana and its whopping 22% purge rate. And this is worst in jurisdictions determined to have a history of racial disenfranchisement.
Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act required those places with a history of voter discrimination to pre-clear any changes to election policy with the Justice Department or a federal court in Washington, D.C., to make sure that any changes to election policy served all voters fairly. For decades, Section 5 protected voters in counties with a troubled past. That changed with the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which struck down Section 5 as unfairly targeting certain jurisdictions and needing to be revised by Congress or abandoned.
Since that decision, purge rates in Section 5 jurisdictions have skyrocketed compared to other places, the Brennan Center found. Before Shelby County, both Section 5 and non-Section 5 purge rates held together at around 7%. After the decision, though, purge rates in Section 5 counties hovered around 3% higher than non-Section 5 jurisdictions.
This suggests that there is still, all these decades later, something about the character of Section 5 counties that is measurably different when it comes to voter rights than in other counties. As Brennan articulates, the data strongly suggests there are 2 million voters purged from the rolls today that would not have been without the Shelby County decision.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.