People lined up for early voting outside the Gwinnett County Voter Registrations and Elections Office in Lawrenceville in October 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Purge of more than 300,000 voter registrations planned in Georgia

About 330,000 voter registrations in Georgia could soon be canceled because registrants haven’t participated in elections for several years.

The purge comes after Georgia canceled 534,119 registrations in July 2017, the largest single removal of voters in U.S. history.

Under a new state law, election officials will notify voters before canceling their registrations, a step that didn’t exist two years ago.

The voter list cleanup, announced Monday by the secretary of state’s office, reinforces Georgia’s role as a voting rights and political battleground ahead of next year’s elections for president and two U.S. Senate seats. Last year, voting rights helped define the race for governor between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp, who won by 1.4 percentage points.

Greg Sawicki checks to make sure his voter registration is in order during this month’s Candler Park Fall Fest 2019 in Atlanta. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Opponents of Georgia’s cancellations say they disenfranchise voters who haven’t participated in elections in recent years but might do so in the 2020 presidential election.

“Voters should not lose their right to vote simply because they have decided not to express that right in recent elections,” said Lauren Groh-Wargo, the CEO for Fair Fight Action, a group founded by Abrams that is suing the state over voting issues. “Having a long history of voter suppression, the Georgia secretary of state’s office has a responsibility to guarantee that not a single voter is wrongly included on the purge list.”

State election officials say many inactive voters have moved out of state, and it’s important to maintain up-to-date registration lists.

Georgia Elections Director Chris Harvey said notifications will be sent in early November to the last known addresses of each of the inactive voters. If they don’t respond within 30 days, their names will be removed from the voter rolls in December.

Voters who return a postage-paid form will remain registered. They can also change their addresses or re-register online, mail a paper registration form or vote on Nov. 5.

RELATED: View a sample Georgia voter cancellation notice

“Accurate voter lists limit confusion and delays at polling places on Election Day, and make sure voters get to vote the complete ballot to which they are entitled,” Harvey said. “Accurate voters lists also allow county election offices to plan for polling place equipment and staffing needs. Accurate voter lists reduce the opportunities for mistakes or fraud.”

Though some voters will save their registrations from cancellation, eliminating roughly 300,000 of Georgia’s 7.4 million registered voters would represent a 4% reduction in the state’s voter rolls.

That rate of cancellations makes sense to David Becker, the executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, which advocates for accurate voter lists and secure election technology. He said the removals are reasonable because they’re lower than the number of people projected to have moved out of state in the past two years.

“People don’t usually call their state and tell them to take them off their voting list,” Becker said. “The numbers by themselves don’t raise any concerns.”

Removing about 300,000 inactive voters who have accumulated over the past two years somewhat aligns with the state’s previous cancellation of more than 500,000 voters in 2017 that had built up over the previous four years.

Becker said Georgia’s voting registration practices put it ahead of most other states.

Georgia has automatic voter registration at driver’s license offices and online voter registration. It also recently enrolled in a 29-state organization called the Electronic Registration Information Center, which shares information about voters who have moved. Becker is an ERIC board member. Georgia is still finalizing its data-sharing processes with ERIC before using it to update voting lists.

Since 2012, Georgia election officials have removed about 1.4 million people from the voting rolls because they died, moved out of state, were convicted of felonies — or stayed home during elections.

States should keep accurate voter lists, but they must exercise caution to make sure legitimate voters aren’t inadvertently canceled, said Myrna Pérez, the director for the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

The federal lawsuit filed by Fair Fight Action alleges that Georgia’s elections kept voters from the polls because of canceled or missing registrations, along with other issues such as precinct closureslong lines and malfunctioning voting equipment.

“There were a lot of people showing up on Election Day and not finding themselves on the rolls and not understanding why,” Pérez said. “When mistakes are made, we feel it on Election Day. That’s the last place you want to feel it.”

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 upheld similar voter registration cancellation practices used in Ohio.

Ohio election officials released the names of 235,000 voters it planned to purge this year but soon learned from voting rights groups that about 40,000 of them shouldn’t have been targeted.

The Georgia secretary of state’s office hasn’t decided whether it will release its purge list in advance.

Georgia voters facing cancellation were declared “inactive” after three years in which they failed to participate in elections, contact election officials, respond to election officials’ mail or update their registrations. A change in state law this year lengthens the period before voters become “inactive,” from three years to five years.

Then if voters don’t cast a ballot in the next two general elections after they become inactive, their registrations can be canceled.

That means for most of the 330,000 Georgia voters who could be canceled, the last time they voted or registered to vote was at least six years ago. Voters who participated in elections more recently could also be canceled if mail from county election offices was returned as undeliverable.

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