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States Need to Improve Voter Purge Policies

The study scored Indiana’s voter removal practices at 76 percent, but the state’s safeguards at just 20 percent, along with five others, for not allowing same-day voter registration. The study has received pushback from state and local officials.

A study of 10 states' voter purge policies released earlier this month identified potential barriers to voter participation and urged reform in the Hoosier state and nine others. The study prompted pushback from the office of the Indiana Secretary of State, which oversees the state's elections.

The study, released Aug. 10 and conducted by the New York-based racial justice think tank Demos, assessed the rules governing how and when registered voters are removed from voting rolls in Indiana, Arizona, California, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin — states selected for their diversity and representative qualities.

Such rules are designed to ensure election integrity by purging voters who have moved away, are deceased, or are otherwise ineligible to vote in future elections. In implementation, however, the study's authors found that these little-known rules can result in eligible voters being improperly stricken from the rolls, hampering their ability to participate in representative government.

"We are in a fight for the life of our democracy," Demos associate director of litigation Estee Konor told the Post-Tribune, "and in that fight, every detail matters."

Some state and local election and party officials disagree with the study's findings, while others do not.

In a statement to the Post-Tribune, Jerry Bonnet, Chief Legal Counsel to Indiana Secretary of State Diego Morales, called the Demos study "likely misleading to the public."

"Consistently applied, routine, transparent, federally mandated, maintenance of a voter list aimed at flagging duplicate and obsolete registrations (i.e. not aimed at removing voters from the rolls as Demos seems to suggest) is not 'purging' voter rolls," he wrote.

Bonnet stressed that "a 'registration' is not a voter," noting that some registrations are removed from rolls because a voter has redundant registrations.

Porter County Republican Party Chair Michael Simpson also criticized the study.

"Indiana has some of the best laws in the USA for safe and secure elections," he wrote in a statement to the Post-Tribune. "I see no compelling reason to change the system we have in place."

The 10 states were given scores from zero to 100 percent in four areas: how likely the state's voter removal practices are to result in an improper purge of an eligible voter; what safeguards are in place to ensure that an improperly purged voter can still participate in elections; how accessible voter data is to voting rights advocates and the general public; and how helpful available data is for identifying an improper voter purge.

Several of the states were found to have concerningly lax standards for determining when a voter has moved, died, or had a criminal conviction, raising the possibility of bureaucratic errors if, for instance, an eligible voter shares a name and birth date with a decedent. In addition, Demos identified a series of practices in place in many of the studied states that are likely to result in the improper purges, including "use it or lose it" policies that result in the purging of registered voters who skip elections, and allowing third parties to challenge the eligibility of registered voters en masse with minimal evidence requirements.

Indiana received the top score for removal practices with 76 percent, owing to the fact that it does not have a "use it or lose it" policy, does not allow mass voter challenges, does not give election officials unchecked removal authority, and does not purge voters on the grounds of mental incapacity.

However, the study's authors wrote, the Hoosier State "still has room for improvement. Indiana has no specified identifying criteria — for instance, a Social Security number — that must be matched before removing voters due to a criminal conviction or death, nor is there a clear appeal procedure for erroneously purged voters. Indiana also does not require that voters or election officials be notified when a felon who has completed their sentence regains the right to vote."

Indiana scored just 20 percent for safeguards, alongside five of the other states, because none of them allow same-day voter registration. This practice, the study's authors wrote, is the most important means of ensuring that erroneously purged voters can re-register and vote in elections. Without it, the study contends, "voters who have been wrongfully removed from the registration rolls without their knowledge are likely to be disenfranchised when they attempt to vote."

States collect information on voters as part of the registration process, but not all make the information available to the public. Providing readily accessible voter registration data aids organizers seeking to promote voter registration in underserved communities, allows advocates to find purged voters and help them re-register, and allows researchers to study the impact of purges in order to determine whether they have had a disproportionate impact on vulnerable communities, the study noted.

The quality of available data can vary, Konor explained, with some states not providing demographic information or reason codes — data on why each purged voter was removed — to members of the public who access the records.

"That reason code is very often not accessible to advocates or members of the public who either purchase or access the voter file in any way," Konor said. "And so what that means is advocates have to put the puzzle together without all the pieces."

In both data accessibility and data transparency, Demos gave Indiana the lowest score out of the 10 states — 0 percent. The state's complete voter file is only available to certain election officials and is inaccessible to members of the general public. Further, there is no timeline by which election officials must respond to requests for even partial data. The available data includes only names, addresses, and election districts for purged voters.

"It makes the work of holding the state accountable harder than it should be," Konor told the Post-Tribune. "and the reality is the people of Indiana, the people of each state in the United States deserve better."

In North Carolina and Ohio, by contrast, the complete voter file is fully available to the public and can be downloaded for free immediately in an electronic format. All other states have room for improvement on this criterion. This level of accessibility earned both states a score of 100 percent in data accessibility. Georgia and North Carolina, both of which provide the public with race, voter ID number, voter status, status reason code, and voting history for purged voters, scored perfectly in data transparency.

Bonnet, with the Secretary of State's Office, wrote, "applicable federal law (National Voter Registration Act) and Indiana Statutes concerning cancellation of a registration on account of death or incarceration for a qualifying criminal felony conviction, are not arbitrary, haphazard, vague, or unspecific."

Regarding data transparency, Bonnet wrote that a voter's full registration record can be obtained via public records request from an county voter registration office, where those records are maintained.

Simpson, the Porter County Republican Party chair, added that he "would be adamantly opposed to same day registration," questioning whether Indiana voters who would use the option are informed enough to vote.

"If they're engaged and done research, why have they not bothered to register?" he wrote.

Lake County Democratic Party chair Jim Wieser, by contrast, told the Post-Tribune that he is "all in favor of same-day registration."

"I think anytime that you make voting more convenient, and more accessible to people, the better you are," he said.

Lake County Elections Director Michelle Fajman told the Post-Tribune that same-day registration "makes sense for some states," but that she has concerns about the burden that the system would place on poll workers.

"They're not used to dealing with those forms on a daily basis and making sure that they're getting all the I's dotted and T's crossed," she said. "Sometimes registrations aren't just going as smoothly as one, two, three — they take a little bit of research."

(c)2023 the Post-Tribune (Merrillville, Ind.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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