In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. Among other things, this required places with a history of discriminating against non-white voters to obtain federal approval before changing the way they conducted elections. In the ensuing decades it narrowed, and in some cases reversed, racial gaps in voting. Congress repeatedly reauthorised the Act, most recently in 2006 for 25 years. But in 2013 the Supreme Court gutted the pre-clearance provision. Since then states that had been bound by it have purged voters from their rolls at a greater rate than other states. That is part of a dramatic rise in voter purges in recent years. Many on the right say such purges and other policies are essential to ensuring electoral integrity. Others see a darker purpose.
According to a recent report by the Brennan Centre for Justice, a think-tank and advocacy group at New York University, nearly 16m voters were removed from the rolls between 2014 and 2016. That is almost 4m more than were purged between 2006 and 2008. The increased purging far exceeds population growth or the growing number of registered voters.
Not all voters were removed erroneously. Culling voter rolls of people who have died, moved, or been convicted of a serious crime keeps them accurate. But Myrna Pérez, one of the report’s authors, says that in jurisdictions previously covered by the Voting Rights Act’s pre-clearance provision, there is a statistically significant relationship between districts with high purge rates and high rates of voting by provisional ballot. That could indicate bad purges. Improperly purged people are often given provisional ballots when they try to vote, whereas those who are properly purged seldom try. Between the presidential elections of 2012 and 2016, districts formerly covered by pre-clearance provisions removed more than 9m voters from their rolls. In Georgia, 156 of the state’s 159 counties saw increases in removal rates.