In a story that has grown all too common as an election draws near, election officials across the country are engaged in an ambitious effort to purge voters from state voter rolls. Moreover, voters from racial minority groups are especially likely to be targeted by this purge. As Al Jazeera America reports, after examining the purge lists from 3 of the 27 states participating in the purge, the purge lists “are heavily weighted with names such as Jackson, Garcia, Patel and Kim — ones common among minorities, who vote overwhelmingly Democratic.”
White voters are not immune from the purge, although they are less likely to be caught in it than voters of color. According to Al Jazeera, “fully 1 in 7 African-Americans” in the 27 states are listed as suspect voters. The same applies to 1 in 8 Asian American voters, 1 in 8 Hispanic voters, and 1 in 11 white voters. Moreover, “officials have begun the process of removing names from the rolls — beginning with 41,637 in Virginia alone.” The purge works by asking voters targeted by it to return a postcard mailed to voters on the purge list. In practice, however, according to one direct-mail expert, “4 percent to 20 percent of any mailing goes astray,” and lower income families are more likely not to receive the card because they tend to move addresses more frequently.
The premise of the purge, which is the “pet project” of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), is that a list of almost 7 million voters are suspected of casting a ballot during the same election in two different states. Thus, to accept this list as plausible, one has to believe that a massive chunk of voters, potentially amounting to nearly 6 percent of the voters who cast a ballot in the 2012 presidential race, cast two votes in a past election. If true, this would be voter fraud on a truly epic scale.
The reality, however, is that the purge list appears to be massively over-inclusive — if it identifies any legitimate cases of voter fraud at all. In many cases, “all it takes to become a suspect is sharing a first and last name with a voter in another state.” The list matches a voter named Kevin Antonio Hayes of Durham, North Carolina with another named Kevin Thomas Hayes from Alexandria, Virginia, for example, suggesting that both men may be the same voter who voted twice. The same is true of John Paul Williams of Virginia and John R. Williams of Atlanta, as well as Robert Dewey Cox of Georgia and Robert Glen Cox of Virginia.
If the Voting Rights Act were still fully operational — that is, if five conservative justices had not struck down one of its key provisions in 2013, then any new election rules in Virginia, Georgia or much of North Carolina would have needed to be “precleared” through the Justice Department or a federal court before it could take effect. It is unlikely that an unreliable purge that disproportionately targets racial minorities could have survived this preclearance process.
Without this process, voting rights advocates and the voters themselves could still file a lawsuit under the surviving provisions of the Voting Rights Act, but this is a much more difficult road to travel. Assembling the record to prove a violation of the Voting Rights Act can take months or more, meaning that, by the time a lawsuit succeeds, the next election will have already happened. And even if a voting rights plaintiff can convince a court to suspend the purge before Election Day next Tuesday, recent Supreme Court decisions suggest that the justices will halt any effort to alter a state’s election procedures this close to an election.