The story read like something straight out of Stalinist Russia. But this casualty list was in the United States in the 21st century. Virginia: 41,637 purged. Florida: 182,000 purged. Indiana: 481,235 purged. Georgia: 591,549 purged. Ohio: two million purged. With the flick of a bureaucratic wrist, millions of Americans—veterans, congressional representatives, judges, county officials, and most decidedly minorities—were erased. To be clear, they still had their lives, but in the course of simply trying to cast a ballot, they soon learned that as far as the government was concerned, they did not exist. They were electorally dead. Their very right to vote had disappeared into the black hole of voter roll purges, Interstate Crosscheck, and felony disfranchisement. Some of the walking dead were viscerally “angry.” Others fumed, “This is screwed up!” Most felt “like an outcast,” “empty and unimportant,” and one man was actually reduced to “crying right there in the county elections office.” These were the latest casualties in the war on democracy.
They had been eliminated by a GOP deftly wielding a law that had actually been designed to broaden access to the polls. The modern-day version of voter purging began in the aftermath of a dismal election. The 1988 presidential contest between Democrat Michael Dukakis and Republican George H. W. Bush not only brought out the racial dog whistle skills of GOP strategist Lee Atwater, who crafted the infamous Willie Horton ad, but it also resulted in one of the lowest voter-turnout rates since 1924. Barely 50 percent of age-eligible adults cast a ballot. Columbia University professor Richard Cloward identified the culprit. “When there’s no organizing structures to help people get registered, the voter registration barriers just sort of gradually erode the electorate.” In some counties in Mississippi, for example, the only place to register to vote was in the clerk’s office during traditional business hours. In other locales, such as Indianapolis, voter registration drives were hampered by a “rule” that doled out a maximum of 25 forms to each volunteer. Limited access to registration had a visible and disparate impact on the electorate. According to a report by Demos, a progressive think tank, while top income brackets achieved more than 80 percent voter registration rates, “from 1972 to 1992, voter registration among the lowest income quintile saw a nearly 18 percentage point drop—from 61.2 percent in 1972 to 43.5 percent in 1992.”
Congress, therefore, passed the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), also known as the Motor Voter law, in 1993. The statute’s opening preamble is clear. The right to vote “is a fundamental right.” And, it is “the duty of the Federal, State, and local government to promote the exercise of that right.” This obligation requires paying particular attention to “discriminatory and unfair registration laws and procedures” that “disproportionately harm voter participation by various groups, including racial minorities.” As a result, the NVRA expanded the venues for and standardized the process of registration. Now citizens could register at the Department of Motor Vehicles and public assistance and disability offices, as well as through the mail with a brand-new standardized federal form.
As important as this was—indeed, the number of registered voters increased by more than 3.3 million in just a few years—the lag time between the initial “concern” in 1988 and the passage of the law in 1993 was significant. During the negotiations, Republicans at first stalled, and then demanded a quid pro quo for increasing access to the ballot box. They insisted that the law had to require routine maintenance, scrubbing even, of the voter rolls. This would ensure that people who had moved out of the district or state and those who had died were no longer listed as eligible voters. It all sounded so reasonable and so mundane. Except it wasn’t. That innocuous language— just like Kit Bond’s demand to insert a requirement for voter IDs into the Help America Vote Act—became yet another weapon in the Republicans’ arsenal to disfranchise as many citizens as possible.