Fifty-nine-year-old veteran Larry Harmon got a surprise when he went to cast a ballot in Ohio last year: He was no longer registered to vote. Harmon hadn’t voted since 2008, a result of being fed up with politics and not liking any of his choices. He didn’t know you could lose your registration just for taking a vacation from the political process. Tens of thousands of other voters in the state were taken off the rolls for the same reason, which they might not figure out until they go to cast a ballot this fall — and Ohio will be an important swing state this year. Voters all over Brooklyn had the same problem in April, when at least 70,000 people were taken off the voter rolls because they hadn’t voted enough in the past. Thousands of voters may have been mistakenly removed for other reasons as well. A baker from Bushwick who had been excited to vote for Bernie Sanders told the New York Daily News, “I’m feeling profoundly snuffed.” And it was hardly the first time this has happened. Ari Berman notes in his book Give Us the Ballot that during the notoriously messy 2000 election in Florida, about 12,000 voters were wrongfully labeled as felons and taken off the rolls. About 44 percent of those were likely African-American.
Election officials do have to periodically defrag voter rolls so that each polling place’s list of voters doesn’t turn into an exhaustive archive of dead people, or people who used to live in the precinct and then moved away. The key, however, is to make sure that you don’t take off voters who still plan on voting at the same polling place. Some states haven’t mastered this skill yet — and these zealous spring-cleaning efforts often have a disproportionate effect on minorities and the elderly. The Ohio ACLU and several other groups are currently suing Secretary of State Jon Husted after voters like Harmon were purged from the rolls for not voting since 2008 — and trying to get the voters back on the rolls before November.
This purging practice wasn’t started by Husted — both Republicans and Democrats previously in his position have pruned the rolls, as have election officials in other states — and voters are usually given a chance to respond to a mailing notifying them that they are scheduled to be taken off. In Brooklyn, affected residents have since been added back, but their suspicions about our electoral system almost certainly remain.
Isn’t there an easier way to keep accurate voter registration lists? Why are we so bad at this? Back in 2012, the Pew Charitable Trusts doled out some serious shade in their analysis of voter list accuracy, saying that “voter registration in the United States largely reflects its 19th-century origins and has not kept pace with advancing technology and a mobile society.” In other words, this system mostly sucks because so many states are making voters register using paper. As of right now, 31 states, plus D.C., let people register online. That’s a massive change from 2008, when only Arizona and Washington offered internet registration. But when states aren’t automatically inputting voter information electronically, it leaves room for massive errors.