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The NVRA Was Not Created to Purge Eligible Voters

Cameron Bell

Voter registration has been making headlines quite a bit this month. Last week, we saw how the National Voter Registration Act expands our democracy—and we saw how “election integrity” groups’ creative interpretations of this law can lead to exactly the opposite result. 

On September 22, we celebrated National Voter Registration Day. As its name suggests, the day is devoted to ensuring that eligible Americans who want to vote, can. More than 2,100 businesses, organizations, and community groups participated in the effort nationwide, hosting events to encourage registration and civic participation. The festivities included a significant social media campaign (#CelebrateNVRD!) and registration drives across the country. Nebraska commemorated the holiday by launching its online voter registration platform. In California, local registrars joined community groups to register citizens and educate eligible Americans about their right to vote.

But despite these voter registration efforts, there are groups trying to undo this progress. The nonprofit Public Interest Legal Foundation made a splash when it accused local registrars in 141 counties across the country of failing to maintain accurate voter registration records, in violation of federal law.  Using Census data (from 2010) and voter registration data (from 2014), PILF claims that it has “matched” the populations of each county and concluded that there are too many people on the voter rolls.  Based on this flawed analysis, PILF has demanded (under threat of a lawsuit) that the counties remedy this excess of democracy by purging thousands of potentially eligible voters. 

What’s ironic is that PILF and similar groups are using the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA)—a law passed to increase voter registration and electoral participation—as their primary tool. The NVRA does have provisions related to removing ineligible voters from the rolls, but the thrust of those provisions is to place constraints on states’ list maintenance procedures. These constraints ensure that states don't inadvertently purge eligible voters and that no voter is ever purged merely for not voting. Clearly, these provisions in the NVRA were not to require states to engage in the kind of unrestrained mass purges these groups demand. 

As numerous election officials have pointed out, these protections can occasionally result in registration rates that appear to exceed 100 percent of the eligible voting population in a county—especially in smaller counties. That's because  just a small influx of new registrations can cause a significant fluctuation in the percentage of eligible voters who are registered. This effect can be further exaggerated, of course, when the eligible population data and the voter registration data come from different time periods.

So what’s the problem? Eligible voters are getting mixed up in these compelled purges. The NVRA’s precise procedure for removing voters who appear to have moved out of a county without notifying county election officials exists to ensure that the people being purged are, in fact, the people who have moved away. But instead, PILF and similar groups are encouraging states to play fast and loose with voter registration data, a tactic that puts all registered voters at risk—just ask some of the people who’ve experienced it. These stories are exactly why the NVRA’s safeguards are there.

Given the danger that these mass purges pose to our democracy, state and local election officials should reject these reckless demands and ensure their list maintenance procedures do not result in any eligible voter being erroneously removed from the voter rolls and turned away from the polls on Election Day.