On its face, the notice sent to 248 county election officials asked only that they do what Congress has ordered: Prune their rolls of voters who have died, moved or lost their eligibility — or face a federal lawsuit. The notice, delivered in September by a conservative advocacy group, is at the heart of an increasingly bitter argument over the seemingly mundane task of keeping accurate lists of voters — an issue that will be a marquee argument before the Supreme Court in January. At a time when gaming the rules of elections has become standard political strategy, the task raises a high-stakes question: Is scrubbing ineligible voters from the rolls worth the effort if it means mistakenly bumping legitimate voters as well? The political ramifications are as close as a history book. Florida’s Legislature ordered the voter rolls scrubbed of dead registrants and ineligible felons before the 2000 presidential election. The resulting purge, based on a broad name-matching exercise, misidentified thousands of legitimate voters as criminals, and prevented at least 1,100 of them — some say thousands more — from casting ballots.
That was the election in which George W. Bush’s 537-vote margin in Florida secured his place in the White House. Controlling the rules of elections — including who is on or off the rolls — has been both a crucial part of political strategy and a legal battleground ever since.
Conservative groups and Republican election officials in some states say the poorly maintained rolls invite fraud and meddling by hackers, sap public confidence in elections and make election workers’ jobs harder. Voting rights advocates and most Democratic election officials, in turn, say that the benefits are mostly imaginary, and that the purges are intended to reduce the number of minority, poor and young voters, who are disproportionately Democrats.
“The goal here is not election integrity,” Stuart Naifeh, the senior counsel at the voting rights group Demos, said. “It’s intimidation and suppression of voters.”