State ‘purges’ of voters raise alarms

Thousands of names can be erroneousl­y removed

- Rick Rouan and Doug Caruso The Columbus Dispatch

ASHLAND, Ohio – A week before Election Day 2016, Bill Gedraitis drove into town to cast an early vote that helped propel Donald Trump to the presidency.

A little more than two years later, Gedraitis’ name disappeare­d from the rolls, a victim of Ohio’s 2019 voter purges that removed more than 460,000 registrati­ons, many for inactivity.

But Gedraitis wasn’t an inactive voter. His name was among thousands erroneousl­y targeted for removal last year under a fractured system in which each of Ohio’s 88 county boards of elections handles its own voter-registrati­on records. It’s a system the state’s elections chief called “antiquated and inefficien­t.”

It’s time to reform that system, Secretary of State Frank LaRose said in a recent interview in which reporters for the

USA TODAY Network and The Columbus Dispatch presented their most recent findings in an ongoing investigat­ion of Ohio’s 2019 purges. He said he wants to bring it under state control and restore trust.

“The system we have in place right now is prone to error – human error, vendor error,” LaRose said. “It’s unacceptab­ly messy.”

Ohio won’t purge again before the 2020 election.

Ohio’s experience shows how just one software glitch, like the one that canceled Gedraitis’ registrati­on, could remove hundreds or thousands of eligible voters from the rolls.

In the run-up to the pivotal 2020 election, controvers­ies emerged over purges in other high-stakes states where some fear a few thousand ballots could flip the vote. Georgia removed 300,000 registrati­ons last year. Wisconsin is locked in a court battle over whether it must strip 200,000 names.

Across the nation, states canceled some 17.3 million registrati­ons between the 2016 presidenti­al election and the 2018 midterms, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Critics, especially on the left, say those removals suppress the vote and have filed lawsuits to stop them. One suit, filed in 2016, put Ohio’s purges on hold while it made its way through the courts.

The U.S. Supreme Court decided that case in mid-2018. It narrowly upheld the 1995 Ohio law that tells county boards of elections to chop the registrati­ons of “inactive voters,” those who haven’t cast a ballot for six years and who have not responded to a mailer.

Ohio resumed its purges on Jan. 11, 2019, when counties removed about 267,000 registrati­ons from the rolls.

LaRose, a Republican, was sworn in the next day. A second purge was planned for September. But LaRose made a crucial change: For the first time, counties had to submit names of voters they planned to cut, which his office then compiled into a single statewide “last-chance” list.

Working from that centralize­d list last summer, the Dispatch identified more than 1,600 active voters who were incorrectl­y notified that their registrati­ons were about to be purged for inactivity. Some had cast ballots as recently as 2018.

Elections officials blamed an error by a vendor of a voter registrati­on software.

In Columbus, Franklin County elections officials identified about 1,100 others who were flagged for removal for inactivity, even though they had signed petitions. That also counts as voter activity.

Thousands of other voters updated their registrati­ons. Of about 235,000 registrati­ons on the state’s last-chance list for September, 194,000 were actually purged.

Even with those discoverie­s, LaRose’s office did not move to check whether similar errors had occurred in January. So reporters for the USA TODAY Network and the Dispatch set out to review that purge.

Last January, Gedraitis was one of at least 17 active voters in five counties who were incorrectl­y removed as inactive, reporters found.

“I think it’s OK to clean up the voter rolls, but look at me,” said Gedraitis. “I voted and I’m getting pushed out.”

LaRose said he instructed county boards to immediatel­y reinstate 15 of those who were incorrectl­y removed. Several county boards had already moved to do that after reporters contacted them.

There could be more errors. Inconsiste­nt record keeping and inaccurate voter-registrati­on software make it difficult to check whether purges were conducted correctly.

County-by-county voter registrati­on in Ohio leads to a “mess” of inconsiste­nt data, LaRose said, and should instead be handled by the state.

“If I’m going to be held accountabl­e for this, I want to make sure that it’s operating at the level of accuracy and efficiency that I would expect,” he said.

The Ohio Legislatur­e is considerin­g a bill that would provide more state oversight of voter registrati­on vendors. Another would automatica­lly update voter registrati­ons when people interact with state agencies, such as the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

Lawmakers in 13 states passed laws to change the way they purge voters in the past two years, according to the National Conference of State Legislatur­es.

The Ohio bills aim to reduce the margin of error in purging voters from the rolls. But Jen Miller, at the League of Women Voters, said a reduction is not enough.

“There’s no acceptable margin of error,” Miller said. “Any eligible Ohioan who is wrongfully removed from the rolls is one too many.”

 ?? TOM E. PUSKAR/ASHLAND TIMES-GAZETTE ?? Bill Gedraitis voted in 2016 but saw his name vanish from the rolls last year.
TOM E. PUSKAR/ASHLAND TIMES-GAZETTE Bill Gedraitis voted in 2016 but saw his name vanish from the rolls last year.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States