Voting Rights Advocates Call on Tennessee to Stop Purging Infrequent Voters

Release Date: 
October 25, 2016

NEW YORK, NY- Last Friday, advocates from Demos, a civil rights and public policy organization, sent a letter to the Tennessee Secretary of State, advising him that the state’s policy of purging voters for their failure to vote violates federal law. 

The letter comes after a panel of the United States Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that Ohio’s practice of purging infrequent voters violated the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), which regulates state voter registration systems. In the Ohio case, after the appeals court’s ruling, the lower court ordered the state to allow the unlawfully purged voters to vote in the Presidential Election on November 8. The appeals court decision is binding on Tennessee as well, because it is in the same federal judicial circuit.

The NVRA includes a requirement that voters, once registered, must remain registered as long as they are eligible.  The NVRA prohibits states from removing voters for failing to vote.  But Tennessee law authorizes exactly that: Voters who miss three federal elections in a row are purged form the state’s voter rolls.

“Tennessee is doing exactly what Ohio was doing—purging voters from the rolls merely because they do not vote in every election,” said Stuart Naifeh, senior counsel at Demos, and one of the attorneys who represented the Ohio plaintiffs. “Voting is not a use-it-or-lose-it right. A citizen’s failure to vote in a particular election does not mean they lose the ability to vote later on.” 

The letter calls on Tennessee Secretary of State, Tre Hargett, to immediately devise and implement a procedure that will allow voters who have been unlawfully purged in the past to cast a ballot that will be counted in the upcoming 2016 General Election.  Tennessee was scrutinized earlier this year when voters in Davidson County reported being turned away from the polls in 2015 because they were not registered to vote—even though they remained eligible. 

“We are hopeful that Secretary Hargett will work collaboratively with us to craft a solution, similar to what the court ordered in Ohio,” said Cameron Bell, a legal fellow at Demos.  “Early voting in Tennessee has already begun, and it’s imperative that the state act quickly to restore these voters’ rights to ensure a fair election in November.”