Mass Georgia voter cancellations begin using info from other states

10/13/2020 - Lawrenceville, Georgia - Gwinnett County residents wait in line to cast heir ballot on the second day of early voting at the Gwinnett County Voter Registration and Elections building in Lawrenceville, Tuesday, October 13, 2020.  (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)
10/13/2020 - Lawrenceville, Georgia - Gwinnett County residents wait in line to cast heir ballot on the second day of early voting at the Gwinnett County Voter Registration and Elections building in Lawrenceville, Tuesday, October 13, 2020. (Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Credit: Alyssa Pointer / Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com

Turnout helps reduce size of voter purge from record highs

Georgia election officials plan to start canceling voter registrations as soon as this week, on a smaller scale than in past years and, for the first time, exchanging information with other states to identify invalid voters.

After large numbers of cancellations in prior years, Georgia election officials expect to remove roughly 113,000 voter registrations this year. The state canceled a record 534,000 registrations in 2017, then removed an additional 287,000 two years ago.

The biennial cancellations, called voter “purges” by their critics, remove registrations of those who changed their address, had election mail returned as undeliverable or didn’t participate in elections for several years. Voting rights groups say Georgia’s cancellations disenfranchise eligible voters who haven’t moved after they decided not to vote in a few elections.

This year’s cancellations will start with 12,000 voters who have died, according to Social Security records. In prior years, Georgia relied on its own death records rather than a multistate database.

Later this summer, an additional 101,000 voters who haven’t participated in elections for nine years will be canceled unless they respond to notification letters.

State Elections Director Chris Harvey said high turnout — over 5 million of the state’s 7.6 million registered voters cast ballots in November — reduced the number of cancellations needed. Casting a ballot ensures that a voter’s registration remains active. In addition, cancellations in prior years already eliminated many outdated registrations.

“So many people have been voting and registering,” Harvey said. “When you get active and vote, you get taken off the inactive list.”

Georgia is one of at least nine states with a law known as “use it or lose it,” which enables election officials to 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.

Under Georgia’s law, otherwise eligible voters lose their registrations if they don’t participate in elections for several years. Voters are declared “inactive” after five years, and then their registrations are voided after missing the next two general elections. “Inactive” voters are still eligible voters until their registrations are cancelled.

The most significant change to Georgia’s voter list practices this year is its enrollment in a 30-state organization that shares voter information called ERIC, the Electronic Registration Information Center.

ERIC notifies state election officials when someone registers to vote in another state, obtains a new driver’s license, or changes his or her address. Those voters will then be mailed letters to confirm they’ve moved. Failure to respond to the letters starts the multiyear period before voter registrations can be removed from Georgia’s voter lists.

Unlike voters who might have moved away, deceased voters will be canceled monthly, starting this week or next, Harvey said.

“It a step toward more accurate information getting into the system earlier,” Harvey said. “Accurate information on the voter lists is another defense against people doing something they shouldn’t be doing. It’s going to make it harder for somebody to try to sneak in and vote.”

It’s unclear how often that actually happens.

When Georgia election officials learn from ERIC that voters have moved and send them notification letters, their registrations could be canceled as soon as four years later rather than the nine it would take to remove them without any information that they had moved. Notifications and waiting periods before removing voters are required by federal law.

Keeping accurate voter lists isn’t a partisan issue, said Shane Hamlin, executive director for ERIC, which is based in Washington.

Voters who have moved from Georgia lose their right to vote here, and up-to-date information helps ensure that voters are assigned to the correct neighborhood precinct and receive absentee ballots at an accurate address.

“It helps improve the voter’s experience on election day, because if your record is out of date you may have problems voting,” Hamlin said. “Regardless of what party a voter is with, everyone only wants eligible voters to participate in the election.”

While sharing voter information may result in more updated voter lists, Georgia election officials shouldn’t overly rely on the flood of data from ERIC to “weaponize” voter registrations cancellations, said Aunna Dennis, executive director for Common Cause Georgia, a government accountability organization.

“I just hope our secretary of state uses it correctly and makes sure that voters have received information from notifications if they’ve moved,” Dennis said. “It’s a good system for checking registrations if the secretary of state’s office uses it properly.”

Georgia joined ERIC two years ago after state lawmakers passed a bill calling for the state to become a member of an entity to share voter information, and now it’s ready to be used after extensive preparations. Georgia’s new voting law, Senate Bill 202, requires the secretary of state’s office to use information from ERIC to help maintain voter lists.

States participating in ERIC can use its information to find outdated voter records, mail letters to voters who might have moved and contact eligible voters about how to register. After receiving notifications, voters who have moved can contact election officials to cancel their registration instead of waiting to be removed for inactivity.

“Like Georgia, we became members of ERIC because it has a solid reputation for providing accurate, actionable data to its member states,” said Will Senning, elections director in Vermont, another state that recently enrolled in the program. “We do anticipate the data we will receive from ERIC will be very useful in identifying records that may need to be updated.”

Reports from ERIC will also identify people who appeared to have voted in two states in the same general election, which could lead to investigations. It’s against the law to vote more than once in the same election.

Voter cancellation timeline

  • Early May: About 12,000 deceased voters will be removed from Georgia’s voter rolls.
  • May-June: Notification letters will be mailed to about 101,000 voters who haven’t participated in elections for nine years. Voters have 40 days to respond before they’ll be canceled.
  • June-July: Notices will be mailed to 194,000 voters who haven’t participated in elections for five years. Voters who don’t respond within 40 days will become “inactive,” making them eligible for cancellation after the next two general elections.
  • July: Letters will be mailed to 244,000 voters that appear to have moved to other states based on voter registration and driver’s license information. Those who don’t respond within 40 days will become inactive and eligible for cancellation after the next two general elections.
  • July-August: Notices will be mailed to 472,000 voters who filled out national change of address forms. Those who don’t respond within 40 days will become inactive and eligible for cancellation after the next two general elections.

Source: Georgia secretary of state’s office

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