Georgia cancels fewer voter registrations after surge last year

Volunteer Cylinda Parga, left, helps high school student Joshua McBrewer fill out his voter registration application before the start of the Town Hall For Our Lives in April in Atlanta. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Volunteer Cylinda Parga, left, helps high school student Joshua McBrewer fill out his voter registration application before the start of the Town Hall For Our Lives in April in Atlanta. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

After more than 668,000 voter registrations were canceled in Georgia in 2017, election officials are removing far fewer people from voting rolls this election year.

Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who oversees elections, is no longer purging names from the state’s list of 6.8 million eligible voters as he runs for governor against Democrat Stacey Abrams.

But Kemp's record of trimming inactive registered voters — more than 1.4 million since he took office in 2010 — is drawing criticism from his opponents who say he's limiting opportunities to vote, especially among low-income and minority Georgians who are more likely to have their registrations canceled.

Related: How voting became a big issue in Georgia’s governor race

Kemp counters those attacks by noting overall growth in the numbers of registered voters in Georgia. There are about 1 million more registered voters in Georgia today than there were eight years ago, outpacing the state’s population growth of nearly 742,000 new residents in that period.

DeKalb County voters line up for early voting at the county Voter Registration and Elections Office in Stone Mountain in October 2016. KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC

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Under Kemp, voter registration cancellations skyrocketed, especially among those who hadn’t voted in recent years or confirmed their last known address.

“It’s discouraging voters rather than a celebration of democracy that we’d want to see,” said Andrea Young, the executive director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. “There should be an interest in keeping Georgia citizens in the voter pool as opposed to taking every opportunity to take people off.”

Kemp’s campaign responded that he has made it easier for Georgians to sign up to vote by starting online voter registration along with a smartphone app.

“As secretary of state, Brian Kemp is required by law to keep our voter rolls clean and our elections secure,” campaign spokesman Ryan Mahoney said.

The numbers of voters removed from registration rolls plunged this year. After 668,691 voter registrations were canceled last year, 86,678 were canceled through Aug. 1 this year, according to the Secretary of State’s Office.

That’s because Georgia only conducts broad cancellations of voter registrations in non-election years as a matter of “long-standing agency practices,” said Candice Broce, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s Office. Federal law requires states to remove ineligible people from voter rolls but doesn’t allow states to systematically cancel names of ineligible voters 90 days before the date of a primary or general election for federal office.

County election offices are continuing to remove names from eligible voting lists this year, but there’s no statewide effort to cancel registrations of inactive voters, she said. Voter registrations can be canceled in an election year when they become ineligible for reasons including deaths, duplicate registrations, felony convictions, voluntary requests and declarations of mental incompetence.

Georgia purged 1.5 million voters between the 2012 and 2016 elections, which is twice as many as the state canceled between 2008 and 2012, according to a report from the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute at New York University’s School of Law.

“The numbers indicate that Georgia has been more aggressive than most other states in purging the voter rolls,” said Jonathan Brater, who focuses on voting rights and elections for the Brennan Center. “Even if you think you’re registered at your current address, you should always check just to be sure that nothing has happened.”

The Brennan Center's report, titled "Purges: A Growing Threat to the Right to Vote," relied on numbers from the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, an independent and bipartisan federal government commission.

The EAC numbers are higher than those reported by the Secretary of State’s Office because they include voters who moved from county to county, transferring voter registrations from one county to another, Broce said. Those voters’ registrations weren’t canceled.

Figures provided by the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office show 717,912 voter registrations were canceled between 2012 and 2016, less than half the number reported by the federal government. Registration cancellations in Georgia declined from 2012 to 2016 compared to the previous four years, when 734,808 registrations were canceled.

As in Georgia, most states conduct large-scale voter removals in non-election years, Brater said.

Georgia’s voter cancellations jumped in 2017 because it was the first time the state used an automated process since upgrading its voter registration database in 2013, Broce said. The Secretary of State’s Office didn’t attempt to cancel inactive voters in 2015 because the new registration system’s accuracy wasn’t verified in time.

Canceling voter registrations is a years-long process in Georgia. First, voters can be designated as “inactive” if they make no contact with election officials for at least three years and then don’t return a confirmation notice to verify their information is correct. Voters labeled as “inactive” are still registered and able to participate in elections.

After voters are declared “inactive,” their registrations can be canceled if they don’t participate in any elections or have contact with election officials for the next two federal general election cycles, or four years. Voters whose registrations are canceled can re-register to vote.

A dentist in Macon, Lindsay Holliday, said he was outraged when he received a letter from the Bibb County election office saying he could be moved to inactive status if he didn’t respond, even though he has voted consistently for 30 years. He later found out he received the letter because the post office had mistakenly returned as undeliverable a postcard notifying him that the name of his precinct had changed.

“It doesn’t take much to keep people from voting, and this process is several hurdles,” said Holliday, who opposes Kemp and usually votes for Democrats. “Voters are going to get intimidated. It will inhibit minorities and disadvantaged people who are less powerful in our society.”

By the numbers

1.47 million: Voter registration cancellations in Georgia since 2012

668,691: Registration cancellations in Georgia in 2017

6.8 million: Registered voters in Georgia today

5.8 million: Registered voters in Georgia in 2010

Sources: Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, U.S. Election Assistance Commission