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Are States Purging Or Cleaning Voter Registration Rolls?


Let's cut through some of this week's rhetoric around voter rolls. Voting rights groups have said states like Georgia and Wisconsin are improperly purging hundreds of thousands of voters from their systems. Conservative groups say inaccurate rolls invite fraud. And state election officials say they're just updating their registration lists. NPR's Pam Fessler covers voting. She's here with the facts.

Welcome to the studio.


CORNISH: Now, aren't some states, in fact, taking hundreds of thousands of voters off their registration rolls?

FESSLER: Well, they're taking names off the rolls. It's not clear how many of these are eligible voters or people who have moved or died, and they should be taken off the lists. Advocacy groups call this purges and purging. States call this list maintenance, which, in fact, is something that they're required to do by federal law under certain restrictions.

If the state thinks that a voter has died or moved and is no longer eligible, they can be taken off the rolls, but only after they don't vote in the next two federal elections. But it's a really complicated process. And that's one reason that federal law requires that any of this list maintenance be done well before an election. And that's why we're seeing all this activity right now before the primary season begins.

CORNISH: So if you're saying federal law requires list maintenance, do voting groups have a legitimate complaint when they say that this, what they're seeing here, there are mass purges of voters?

FESSLER: Well, almost every time these things are done, some eligible voters end up being removed by mistake. So, for example, Georgia earlier this week took 300,000 inactive voters off the registration lists. That's still being challenged in court. But just yesterday, they reinstated 22,000 of them because there were errors. And so that makes people, you know, suspicious. What else is wrong with this process?

Now, in Wisconsin, it's a whole different case. It's the state that wants to wait until after the 2020 elections to remove some 234,000 voters who appear to have moved. They want to wait because they've run into problems in the past using Division of Motor Vehicle change of address records to clean up their lists. But a conservative group filed lawsuits, saying that the state has to take these voters off the rolls now. And a judge has agreed, but that's being appealed.

CORNISH: What can voters do to make sure that we're not mistakenly taken off the list?

FESSLER: Well, first, Georgia and some of the other states have started to publicize the lists of those who are about to be removed in advance so that, you know, voters can try and correct mistakes. It's important to know that when somebody is mistakenly taken off the rolls, they can still reregister and vote. And in some states, like Wisconsin, they can actually register on Election Day. And just in general, people should always check their voter registrations to make sure that they're up to date before they go vote.

CORNISH: You're talking about a lot that's kind of essentially rules bureaucracy, right? So how much of the broader controversy is driven by politics?

FESSLER: Well, I think a lot of it is. I mean, notice where the states that we're talking about - we're talking about Georgia, Wisconsin, Ohio. They're all very crucial states, especially for next year's elections. Other states like Oklahoma this year removed tens of thousands of voters from their rolls, but we didn't really hear about it.

Democrats and liberal advocacy groups, they are worried that their voters are hurt the most by these cleanup efforts. That's because low income, minority and young voters do tend to move around a lot. So they are disproportionately affected. And calling them purges does tend to fire up the base to come out on Election Day and defend their right to vote.

And on the other hand, Republicans and conservative groups keep using the fact that voter rolls are filled with all these inaccuracies as a sign that the system is prone to widespread fraud, even though there's no evidence of that. But it certainly doesn't look good, and that's another reason that states want to clean up their lists.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Pam Fessler.

Thanks for explaining it.

FESSLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler
Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.