Many eligible Georgia voters were canceled in nation’s largest purge

About 87K re-registered, showing they were legitimate voters all along
Donell Peterman talks about voter registration issues in his Union City home. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Donell Peterman talks about voter registration issues in his Union City home. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

Donnel Peterman is the kind of voter who should have been safe from Georgia’s mass cancellations.

He has lived in the same house south of Atlanta for 16 years. He worked at a neighborhood precinct for the 2016 presidential election. He believes voting can make a difference.

Peterman was shocked to learn that like 560,000 other Georgians, election officials canceled his inactive voter registration one night in July 2017, in the largest single removal of voters in U.S. history.

“Wow, if they’re going to cancel me, who else are they going to cancel?” asked Peterman, a 67-year-old retiree who was a superintendent of operations for MARTA. “They’ve got this all jacked up.”

Since the 2017 purge, Peterman and more than 87,000 other canceled voters have re-registered in Georgia, indicating that they were eligible all along, according to an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and APM Reports, the investigative reporting division of American Public Media.

Greg Sawicki checks to make sure his voter registration is in order during the Candler Park Fall Fest 2019 in Atlanta. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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They were dropped from the voter rolls under a Georgia law known as "use it or lose it," which allows election officials to flag registrations for removal because voters have sat out several elections.

Election officials’ justification for the law is that it helps account for voters who may have moved out of state, eliminating their right to vote in Georgia.

But those who re-registered did not move from Georgia.

And nearly 56,000 of them re-registered within the same county, according to the AJC/APM Reports analysis. If their registrations hadn’t been canceled, they would have been able to vote without having to re-register.

More than half, almost 30,000 Georgia voters, re-registered too late to participate in the close 2018 election for Georgia governor. It’s impossible to know how many of them attempted to vote, but those who tried wouldn’t have had their ballots counted.

Georgia is one of at least nine states where election officials can factor voters’ failure to cast a ballot into the process of canceling their registrations, according to a review of laws compiled by the National Association of Secretaries of State. Voters in Georgia lost their registrations if they didn’t vote or have contact with election officials for at least seven years.

“You shouldn’t lose your right to vote because of that. That’s like saying, ‘If you don’t drive your car for seven years, you lose your license,’ ” Peterman said.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has said it’s essential to update voter lists to account for voters who have moved to other states but left their Georgia registrations in place.

While cancellations do clean out outdated and invalid registrations, they also eliminate legitimate voters who are inactive by choice. Those voters are cut from the rolls because they decided to sit out a few elections. Cancellations also address people who have moved to a different county or died.

Raffensperger's office canceled 287,000 voter registrations in December, a lower number than the 560,000 removals in 2017 when Gov. Brian Kemp was secretary of state. So many registrations were canceled at once in 2017 in part because inactive voters had accumulated since the previous removals in 2013. There are now 7.2 million registered voters in Georgia.

“Accurate and up-to-date voter rolls are vital to secure elections, but at the same time I want to ensure that anyone potentially affected by this routine process has notice and opportunity to update their information,” Raffensperger said about last year’s cancellations. “That is why our office took the unprecedented step to release the full list to ensure that people who are still eligible voters can update their information.”

About 4,500 Georgia voters responded to notification letters from election officials last year, saving their registrations from cancellation. The mailed letters were a new step to warn voters soon before their registrations were canceled. Notifications were also sent when voters were first designated as inactive, which occurs two general elections before their cancellations.

Donell Peterman talks about voter registration issues in his Union City home. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

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In Peterman’s case, he never saw a notification letter mailed to his Union City home.

His contact with election officials should have kept his registration active.

Even though Peterman worked at the polls and says he voted at the South Fulton Service Center in 2016, state election records say he hadn’t voted since 2008. It’s unclear why his 2016 vote wasn’t recorded.

His vote in 2016 didn’t count, and then Georgia election officials canceled his registration the next year.

Peterman re-registered soon afterward, and he cast a ballot in the 2018 election for governor.

All states are required by federal election laws to routinely update their lists of registered voters.

Canceling registrations for inactivity is an imprecise way of removing people suspected of no longer being Georgia voters, said Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School who oversaw voting rights cases in the Justice Department during the Obama administration.

“It was a rather sloppy proxy for trying to find out who had moved,” Levitt said. “It’s a very old and very blunt tool if what you’re trying to do is find people who are ineligible. In the 21st century, there are far more accurate and less expensive ways to find out if people are properly registered.”

The 2017 cancellations affected a disproportionate number of people of color, the AJC and APM Reports found.

Of those who proved to be legitimate Georgia voters by re-registering in the same county, 43% were African American, Latino, Asian or other nonwhite voters, despite making up just 37% of the state’s voter list. Conversely, white voters accounted for 49% of re-registrations, a rate lower than their 53% share of the overall voter list. The remaining 8% of didn't disclose their race when re-registering.

Georgia’s broad removals should worry all voters, regardless of race, Georgia NAACP President James Woodall said.

“It’s going to disenfranchise the least among us in the democratic process,” Woodall said. “We have low- to mid-propensity voters who might be encouraged to get out once in a blue moon. They might be told they’re not on the rolls.”

Those who show up at the polls and learn they’re no longer registered might be given a provisional ballot. But ballots cast by unregistered voters aren’t counted.

That’s what happened in the 2018 election, when some Georgians showed up at the polls only to be told they weren’t registered to vote, according to a lawsuit filed against the state by Fair Fight Action, a voting rights organization.

Just one-fourth of provisional ballots issued to people whose names couldn’t be found on voter registration lists were later counted after their voter information was verified in Georgia’s 2018 election, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. The rest of those ballots were thrown out.

Georgia’s “use it or lose it” cancellation law is more aggressive than in most other states, said Myrna Pérez of the Brennan Center for Justice, a policy institute at New York University that focuses on democracy and criminal justice.

“The problem is when states are overrelying on unreliable methods” to cancel voter registrations, said Pérez, the director for the Brennan Center’s voting rights efforts, which include advocacy, research and litigation. “Not only did Georgia have a high rate of purges, it had a very high rate of provisional ballots. And provisional ballots are a proxy for invalid purges.”

Most other states keep their voting lists clean by relying on other information to determine whether a voter has moved away. They send mail notifications, check postal service records, make phone calls to voters, review jury notices or look up tax records.

The majority of Georgia’s voter registration cancellations in 2019 truly did affect people who had moved away, according to data from the secretary of state’s office.

Two-thirds of those removed from Georgia’s voting list either filled out change-of-address forms, or elections mail was returned as undeliverable. That left one-third of voter registrations canceled under the “use it or lose it” law. Similar data wasn’t available for the 2017 cancellation.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld voter cancellations for inactivity in a 2018 case from Ohio called Husted v. Randolph Institute.

While federal election laws forbid removing voters solely based on their failure to vote, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that they could be canceled if voters also didn’t respond to a mailed notification from election officials.

The Supreme Court’s majority acknowledged that Ohio used voting inactivity as a “rough way of identifying voters who may have moved” but said the correlation is debatable.

The research by the AJC and APM Reports shows that for at least 87,000 Georgia voters whose registrations were canceled — 16% of the total removed in 2017 — they had not moved out of the state. They were still eligible to be Georgia voters.

More than one in four voters who re-registered after their cancellations did so at the exact same address. That’s about 23,000 voters who were canceled but hadn’t moved.

Many of those who re-registered to vote likely did so through Georgia’s automatic voter registration program, which signs up people to vote when they obtain or renew their driver’s licenses. Automatic voter registration added about 350,000 new voters each of the past three years, accounting for about 80% of the state’s increasing number of active voters.

That’s how Peterman, the retiree whose registration was canceled, rejoined the state’s voter lists. He renewed his driver’s license in December 2017, four months after his registration was canceled. He didn’t know that his ability to vote had been temporarily revoked.

The same was true for other voters contacted by the AJC.

“If it’s true, I’m very upset because I wasn’t aware” of the cancellation, said Steve Robinson of College Park.

Pamela Evans of Powder Springs said she knew her registration had been canceled, but it didn’t cause any problems before she re-registered.

“I hope they’re not losing their rights to vote,” Evans said of those who were removed for inactivity.

Nineteen states allow voters to register on Election Day, ensuring that they can vote if they're eligible. Georgia doesn't allow Election Day voter registration and has one of the strictest registration deadlines in the nation, 29 days in advance of elections.

In addition, 30 states participate in an organization that shares voter information for purposes of registering and canceling voters. Georgia recently joined the organization, called the Electronic Registration Information Center, but the state is still setting up its data-sharing processes before using it to update voting lists.

Peterman said he believes voting makes a difference, and the revelation that he lost his registration only rededicated him to participating in elections. He plans to sign up as a poll worker again this year.

“There’s enough going on that it needs to be fair and square when you vote,” Peterman said. “If not, you’re kind of guaranteeing yourself a victory. That’s just my opinion.”

— Mark Niesse reported for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Geoffrey Hing and Angela Caputo reported for APM Reports.

Key findings

  • Since Georgia election officials canceled 560,000 voter registrations in 2017, 87,000 of them have re-registered to vote.
  • Those voters were always eligible but lost their registrations because they hadn't participated in elections for several years.
  • Georgia is one of at least nine states where not voting or making contact with election officials can put voters on the path to removal. The other eight states with some variation of "use it or lose it" laws are Alaska, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and West Virginia.
  • About 23,000 re-registered to vote at the same home address. Their registrations had been canceled even though they hadn't moved.
  • Many voters re-registered through automatic voter registration when they obtained or renewed their Georgia driver’s licenses.