Ohio became a target of a voting rights lawsuit after Secretary of State Jon Husted oversaw the removal of about 2 million voters in the last two years. The ACLU and other advocacy groups argued that Ohio struck names exclusively because of voter inactivity, in violation of the NVRA.
Ohio State University election law professor Daniel Tokaji, who volunteered for the plaintiffs, told News21 that purges tend to disportionately harm poor people and minorities. “We don’t have to prove a racially discriminatory impact to win.”
A federal judge agreed with Husted, ruling that Ohio did not violate the law because voters were purged for a variety of reasons. The case has since been appealed to the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which heard oral arguments in late July and has not yet ruled.
When Hamilton County, Ohio, where Cincinnati is the county seat, removed 75,000 voters this year, nearly half, and in some neighborhoods far more, were purged because of “non-response.” A News21 analysis found a connection between the poverty rate and racial composition of ZIP codes in the county and the purge rates of registered voters.
In central Cincinnati, where the poverty rate in the Clifton Heights neighborhood is double the city’s average, Hamilton County officials so far removed 27 percent of the voters. Six miles west, in the almost exclusively white suburban Cheviot neighborhood where the poverty rate is half that of the region, the county purged 9 percent of voters.
Just south of Clifton Heights, near downtown Cincinnati, Brittany Middlebrooks, 26, walked through Washington Park with a clipboard, registering voters earlier this summer. She cited Ohio’s recent purges to warn people they might not get to vote if they don’t re-register. “I feel like they are trying to do their best to get us not be able to vote,” MIddlebrooks told News21.
But conservative activist groups view inaccurate registration rolls as a problem for democracy. The conservative American Civil Rights Union has sued eight counties to cleanse the rolls. A year ago the Public Interest Legal Foundation, which litigates on behalf of the ACRU, said it sent warning letters to 141 more. In January, the legal foundation said it threatened to sue 30 counties.
“Across the country, hundreds of other counties have more registered voters than people alive. If they don’t clean up their rolls, they risk litigation,” ACRU Chairwoman Susan Carleson wrote on the group’s website. “Every time an illegal voter casts a ballot, it steals someone else’s legal vote. The goal is to ensure the integrity of the voting process.”
The ACRU sued three small counties in Texas along the Rio Grande, which are overwhelmingly Latino, plus four Mississippi counties with black populations ranging from 34 percent to 72 percent. In Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis and Walthall counties, plus Zavala County, Texas, the ACRU won what it called “historic consent decrees” to compel reinvigorated purges.
Sean Young, senior staff attorney for the Voting Rights Project at the liberal-leaning American Civil Liberties Union, said the renewed focus on purging registration lists is no coincidence.
“These groups are trying to use the statutes in the NVRA as a tool to disenfranchise voters,” Young said. “Their efforts have certainly been reinvigorated, in direct response to record numbers of registrations of African-Americans.”
Election officials rely on a hodgepodge of data sources and name-matching tools to clear out ineligible voters: local death and marriage records, state or federal prison and court notices, the U.S. Social Security Administration’s Death Index, the U.S Postal Service’s national change of address database, various immigration databases, vehicle registration records and other state voter lists.
The 30 states using the Kansas-based Interstate Crosscheck System match last names, first names and partial Social Security numbers to identify people who potentially have registered in more than one state. Some states include birthdays, ages or full birthdates. The service is free to member states.
Pew’s ERIC system charges 21 states $25,000 a year, plus their share of annual overhead costs. Created in 2012, ERIC is managed by a nonprofit partnership comprising the states’ elections officials. ERIC adds full middle names, suffixes like Jr. or Sr., full driver’s license numbers, addresses and full birthdates to the matching software. States pay for the subscription to access more complete federal databases and promise to mail all eligible voters to remind them to register.
States also can use the Homeland Security Department’s SAVE immigration database to check individuals in the voting rolls against the government’s lists detailing the citizenship status of foreigners who’ve entered the country.
In 2012, Florida used SAVE to identify 180,000 mostly Hispanic noncitizens and told county elections officials 2,650 of them were registered to vote, according to court records. The Justice Department sued to halt the purge. When Latino advocates alleged that some purged voters were, in fact, citizens, they also sued in federal court. Florida volunteered to suspend its use of SAVE, recognizing mistakes.
Latinos and Asians are more likely to be falsely matched with noncitizens because those cultures have fewer surnames, demographers and election experts widely agree. Nonetheless, at least 16 states, many, such as Texas and Arizona, with large Latino and immigrant populations, still use SAVE or have sought federal approval to use the database.
State elections officials in Washington and Colorado, which both use Crosscheck and ERIC, told News21 that ERIC was more reliable.
Colorado Elections Director Judd Choate gave Crosscheck mixed grades. “It’s the only tool for identifying double voters across states,” Choate said, noting ERIC does not yet track voting histories and “when they do, we’ll drop out of the interstate (Crosscheck) compact.” He said the Crosscheck data can be a year out of date, which makes it “kind of lousy” for keeping accurate lists and finding people who voted in two states.
A Washington state audit of the ERIC system in 2014 found statistically no cases in which people who were legally registered were falsely flagged as ineligible. ERIC also identified more dead voters, Washington found.
“We never took action on any of the Interstate Crosscheck, the Kansas program,” said Stuart Holmes, election information systems supervisor for the Washington secretary of state’s office.
“There will always be problems. We will not have a mistake-free election,” Pew’s Becker said. “We’re doing better than we ever have before. We’re not doing as well as we’d like in an ideal world.”
Emily L. Mahoney, Hillary Davis and Jimmy Miller contributed to this report.