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17 million Americans purged from voter rolls between 2016 and 2018, new report finds

The most prolific purgers come from states with a long history of racial discrimination.

People vote in the Super Tuesday primary at Centreville High School March 1, 2016, in Centreville, Virginia.
Voters in a dozen states will take part in "Super Tuesday" -- a series of primaries and caucuses in states ranging from Alaska to Virginia, with Virginia the first to open its polling stations at 6:00 am (1100 GMT).  / AFP / PAUL J. RICHARDS        (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
People vote in the Super Tuesday primary at Centreville High School March 1, 2016, in Centreville, Virginia. Voters in a dozen states will take part in "Super Tuesday" -- a series of primaries and caucuses in states ranging from Alaska to Virginia, with Virginia the first to open its polling stations at 6:00 am (1100 GMT). / AFP / PAUL J. RICHARDS (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

At least 17 million Americans were purged from U.S. voter rolls between 2016 and 2018, with particularly dramatic increases in states with a history of racial discrimination, according to a new report by the Brennan Center for Justice.

The number of names eliminated by election officials has surged since the Supreme Court in 2013 significantly weakened protections of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That decision, Shelby County v. Holder removed protections that forced communities with a history of discrimination to get Department of Justice or federal court approval before changing local voting laws, a process known as pre-clearance.

The report indicates that the communities with a long history of discriminating against African Americans and Latinx voters may still be discriminating against minorities by illegally purging names from voter rolls now that pre-clearance provisions have been lifted.

States such as Virginia, Texas, Georgia, and Arizona between 2016 and 2018 purged voters at much higher rates than other states that were never under federal pre-clearance supervision. 

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“There is something about the structural and systemic nature of these states that has caused them to look differently at least with respect to purges,” said Myrna Pérez, director of the Brennan Center’s voting rights and elections program.

“I think this shows a certain stickiness to their history of discrimination,” Pérez added. “This demonstrates to me that the Supreme Court was wrong in its assessment that there is nothing special or unique in these states anymore and that they moved on.”

Election officials often remove voters from rolls when they become ineligible to vote in that community, such as when a voter moves to another state or dies. However, voters who are still eligible to vote are often removed from rolls without their knowledge, and only find out that their names were purged when they are denied a ballot on Election Day.

Republicans say voter purging is essential to preventing the nearly non-existent issue of fraud the ballot box and to that end, officials in several GOP-controlled states have put into place burdensome voter regulations that often have the effect of suppressing legitimate votes by college students, African Americans, members of the Latinx community and other Democratic-leaning voters.

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While there are federal laws in place to protect voters from being improperly removed from the rolls, there nevertheless have been examples in Republican-controlled states of names being illegally removed.

A number of states purged names using the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program, which flags people who may have voted in different states but has an extremely high margin of error. Last year, a federal judge ordered a preliminary injunction stopping Indiana from purging voters that were flagged under the crosscheck program. The Brennan Center is among the organizations challenging the Indiana law and the case is still in federal court.

Earlier this year, Texas’ former Secretary of State David Whitley resigned after a federal judge blocked him from purging state voter rolls of the names of nearly 100,000 people who were falsely identified as non-citizens. Emails later suggested that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott led the effort to purge the names.

The Brennan Center’s report relied on data from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission survey showing that at least 16 million names were removed from voter rolls between 2014 and 2016, immediately following the Supreme Court decision. The latest update to that report, which was released last week, showed the number of people that were purged continued to grow, with at least 17 million voters removed between 2016 and 2018.

Pérez said the Brennan Center does not know how many people were removed erroneously or with discriminatory intent. But the results were startling, considering that about four million more names were removed from rolls between 2016 and 2018 than between 2006 and 2008.

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Areas previously subjected to federal pre-clearance due to past discriminatory practices removed voters at a median rate 40% higher than other jurisdictions, according to the report.

About 1.1 million more people would have remained on voter rolls if those communities had purged voters at the same rate as localities that were never subject to pre-clearance.