With two months until Virginians decide which of two polar opposites — Terry McAuliffe and Ken Cuccinelli — will be their next governor, tens of thousands of voters could be removed from the rolls in a statewide purge.
Approximately 57,000 Virginians have been flagged as being registered in another state, and counties are removing some from the voter rolls without any notice or opportunity to rebut the claim. Before conservatives lose their marbles that this is clear and irrefutable evidence of voter fraud, it’s worthwhile to consider how voter registration works. Each state maintains its own roll rather than a nationwide system. When Joe America, who had been registered in Richmond, moves to Philadelphia and registers there, he’s not required to cancel his Virginia registration before enrolling in Pennsylvania. The process for removing registrations of people who have moved elsewhere varies from state to state, but generally involves periodic comparisons of lists between states to flag and remove people like Joe America who have moved elsewhere.
Clearly, given the decentralized 50-voter-roll system we currently have, there’s a need for the lists to be periodically cleaned up. But there are a number of issues that make Virginia’s current purge of up to 57,000 voters problematic.
First and foremost, as multiple county registrars explained to ThinkProgress, voters whose registrations are being cancelled aren’t being given any advance notice. Rather than being mailed a warning letter asking if they still live in Virginia, they are being sent notices that their registration has been cancelled effective immediately. If the cancellation is in error, the letter says to contact the registrar and get it worked out. It’s not measure twice, cut once. It’s cut first and be ready with tape for the mistakes.
Second, according to at least one voter’s experience, the list contains some serious errors. One Accomack County voter, writing on the blog Blue Virginia under the pseudonym rodentrancher, detailed her experience having her registration wrongly cancelled. Though she’d lived and registered in South Carolina in 2009, she had moved to Virginia last year and re-registered there. Even so, her file was flagged as a duplicate and she received a letter last week informing her that her registration was cancelled. If she hadn’t seen the letter, or had the foresight to call the county registrar who sent her a new registration form, she would have been effectively disenfranchised from the November election.
The list of 57,000 duplicate registrations was given by the state Board of Elections to county registrars in August. “We were told by the state board that this is a legitimate list and we should process them accordingly,” Patricia White, General Registrar of Accomack County, told ThinkProgress. Still, as Don Palmer, Secretary of the Virginia Board of Elections, emailed, “the final decision is up to each of the 133 local registrars based on voter history and activity.” Palmer was appointed by Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) in 2011.
Some county registrars are going over the list with a fine-tooth comb in an effort to prevent errors. “We’re not taking the list at face value,” Gary Scott, Deputy Registrar of Fairfax County, told ThinkProgress.
Finally, the current purge is being conducted exceedingly close to the upcoming election. The deadline to register in Virginia is October 14, less than six weeks away. That leaves little room for error. A purge in March gives voters, campaigns, and the state eight months to ensure that people who were improperly unregistered are given their Virginia voting rights back. When asked why the Board of Elections didn’t conduct this purge at an earlier time, Palmer wrote that August “was the first opportunity” they had after reviewing “data from other states and insertion of primary election voter history.”
In the 2009 election, approximately two million Virginians cast a ballot. If all 57,000 registrations that were flagged are ultimately cancelled, that would represent approximately three percent of all votes, a potentially decisive factor in a close election.
If you are a Virginia voter and have received a cancellation notice in error, email ThinkProgress and let us know.