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Report: Voter Purging Process Is Shrouded in Secrecy, Prone to Error and Vulnerable to Manipulation

StoryOctober 09, 2008
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A new study by the Brennan Center for Justice has found voters across the country are being purged through a process that is shrouded in secrecy, prone to error and vulnerable to manipulation. The Brennan Center is calling on states to develop and publish uniform, non-discriminatory rules for purges; provide public notice of pending purges; make purge lists publicly available; and develop rules for individuals to challenge the purge list. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: We turn now to a new study by the Brennan Center for Justice that has found voters across the country are being purged through a process that is shrouded in secrecy, prone to error and vulnerable to manipulation. Thousands of voters have already been erroneously removed from the polls this year in Mississippi, Georgia and Louisiana.

The Brennan Center is calling on states to develop and publish uniform, non-discriminatory rules for purges; provide public notices of pending purges; make purge lists publicly available; and develop rules for individuals to challenge the purge list.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now in the firehouse studio by Myrna Pérez. She is the author of the “Voter Purges” report, an attorney for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice.

I want to welcome you to Democracy Now! Start off by just defining — what is “voter purging”?

MYRNA PEREZ: Voter purging is a way of updating or changing a voter registration list, such that when a person goes to vote on Election Day, he or she finds himself or herself unable to cast a regular ballot or a ballot that will count.

AMY GOODMAN: How much does that happen?

MYRNA PEREZ: Purging happens all across the country probably every day. It is part of the process that states use to maintain and update their voter registration rolls, and it is very important for all of us that states and localities have good and accurate rolls. The problem is, is this process happens in secret, without accountability, in a haphazard and slipshod manner. And very frequently, voters don’t know that they’ve been erroneously purged until they actually show up and vote.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, usually, it normally works that if you haven’t voted for a few years, they’ll send you — the local board of election will send you a notice, right, to find out if you are still living at that address or you’ve died or something else has happened. But you’re saying that the notices aren’t going out to many of the voters?

MYRNA PEREZ: Well, that’s actually — because it’s a process that is controlled largely at the state level, it varies from state to state. There are, in fact, some states that try to check and update their registration rolls by looking at people who haven’t voted for awhile. But the federal laws specifically say that someone cannot be removed solely on the basis of failure to vote.

Now, not all states do the checking the way that you indicated. Sometimes they just don’t do that process. The problem that happens is when the process that they try to update rolls aren’t done in a way with sufficient voter protections, it’s not done enough time in advance, and it’s not done in a way that people can be held accountable. One of the things that struck me when doing this research is that a local election official in Mississippi purged 10,000 voters a week before the primary, and the reports are that she did it from her home computer.

AMY GOODMAN: So, has computerized voter rolls made it easier to purge?

MYRNA PEREZ: It certainly has. And I’m not of the belief that the computerized voter rolls are necessarily problematic. It’s required by the Help America Vote Act. In many ways, it allows for easier election administration. But that puts the stakes much higher, because now you can go in and, with a push of a button, you know, remove a lot of people from the rolls.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, interestingly, in Puerto Rico, where I’m originally from, every election, the government actually advertises the names of all of the people that are about to be purged from the rolls, so that there’s a public review process actually of people. And the newspapers publish lists of all the people about to be purged from the rolls, so you have of an opportunity to challenge it. But that doesn’t happen here, as far as I know, in most —-

MYRNA PEREZ: We have -— you know, we studied twelve states. We tried to do a representative sample of the states. And we found almost no notice of that kind. Some of the states — or at least set forth in state statute, that they have to do this. We found some states that would say you have to do this before a certain amount of time, but they don’t tell you when it’s going to happen. And, you know, voters have to take the extra step to actually go in and check, if that’s, in fact, available. And that’s not available in every state.

AMY GOODMAN: Myrna Pérez, talk about voter purging in Louisiana.

MYRNA PEREZ: Louisiana is a state that has befallen a lot of problems — you know, the hurricanes, etc. — and there was a concern that, with the number of people that were having to be temporarily relocated, that there might not be like an accurate representation of the rolls as to who was actually eligible. And what Louisiana did was it looked at, like, other states, and it saw who had been supposedly registered in other states. But there were a lot of things going on, in that you had people that wanted driver’s license, so they, you know, registered to get a driver’s license, but they didn’t intend to disavow or never return to Louisiana, or you had people that were temporarily dislocated but planned to go back.

And one of the problems that happened in the way that Louisiana tried to update its registration rolls was that they sent people notices saying, you know, we have reason to believe that you registered in another state. Well, if they were wrong about that, if someone actually didn’t register in another state, they didn’t have the documentation that they could have provided to challenge that. And so, our concern and the concern of a number of other civil rights organizations was that the process wasn’t designed in such a way to actually make sure that the people who were targeted were able to challenge their targeting or that simply got it.

JUAN GONZALEZ: You also mention Montana in your report. What happened in Montana?

MYRNA PEREZ: Montana is a state which very recently came into public light, because there were a certain number of persons, approximately 6,000 people, that were being challenged because a local party had attempted to look at who was on the registration rolls and compare that to the National Change of Address database, and if there was a discrepancy, there was thought that these people were going to be challenged.

And we have a lot of concerns with a challenge on that basis. For example, a lot of people don’t realize that under federal law, if you have moved any and you haven’t changed your congressional district and you haven’t changed whatever your local jurisdiction is — so, in most cases it’s counties; in some places, it’s towns — you are allowed to vote. And sometimes state law allows you to vote at your new place’s polling place. Sometimes it allows you to vote at your old polling place. But you’re not deprived of your right to vote simply because you didn’t formally update your notice.

AMY GOODMAN: As we conclude, I thought it was interesting, in your report, Republican officials, as you said, challenging 6,000 registered voters, among them a former Montana state rep., Kevin Furey, a first lieutenant in the Army Reserve, on the challenge list because he’s currently in New Jersey planning to deploy to Iraq. His quote: “It’s ironic, at the same time I’m about to return to Iraq to help build a democracy, that my own right to vote is being challenged at home for partisan purposes. These challenges are a blatant and offensive attempt to suppress the rights of voters.”

MYRNA PEREZ: And I just wanted to say that last night, the newspaper reports are that these challenges were not going to go forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Myrna Pérez, for joining us. We will link to the Brennan Center <a href= >report on voter purging.

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