Georgia’s ‘use it or lose it’ voter purge forced more than 850,000 eligible voters off the rolls

As Georgia secretary of state, Republican Brian Kemp oversaw purges that removed 1.3 million voters from the rolls. Now he’s running for governor.

By Leigh Chapman, Senior Policy Advisor, and George Hornedo, Policy Fellow, for Let America Vote

Election officials seeking partisan advantage at the ballot box have turned to voter purges in recent years, dropping eligible voters from the rolls in order to control who can vote on Election Day.

It’s part of a rising tide of voter-suppression tactics, in which politicians attempt to shape the electorate to ensure their own electoral success.

The most prominent of these efforts comes from Ohio, where a 2015 purge is now under review by the U.S. Supreme Court — with a decision on its legality expected in the coming weeks. But states across the country have experimented with knocking voters off the rolls, including in Georgia, where Let America Vote is working on the ground to elect voting-rights champions and create political consequences for vote suppressors.

Earlier this year, we submitted a public records request to Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp requesting detailed information on who was purged from the voter rolls and why. The results were stunning: about 1.3 million Georgians were removed from the rolls between 2013 and 2017, representing perhaps 18 percent of the state’s eligible voting population.

We invited data scientists to analyze the records. They found that while a third of these voters — about 417,000 — were removed because they were deceased, ineligible felons, duplicative registrants, had moved out of state, or for other legitimate reasons, the vast majority — more than 850,000 — were removed simply because they didn’t vote in two general election cycles. (The analysis found younger voters were disproportionately impacted by the purge as well).

This “use it or lose it” approach, in which Georgia purges voters simply for not having voted, is overly aggressive and ultimately counterproductive to the goal of civic engagement. It may also violate federal law.

Rather than encouraging its citizens to vote, election officials in Georgia are punishing voters for not voting, and suppressing their voice in the process. Not only does the language of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) expressly prohibit targeting voters for removal for failure to vote, this removal procedure undoubtedly undermines democratic participation.

The validity of a “use it or lose it” standard for purging voters is, in fact, at the heart of the Ohio case pending before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In Georgia, Common Cause and the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP filed a federal lawsuit against Secretary of State Kemp over the voter purges, arguing the action violated the NVRA and the First Amendment. The district court dismissed those claims, leading the plaintiffs to appeal, and the appeals court has sent the case back to district court for reconsideration once the Supreme Court decides the Ohio case.

Let America Vote’s mission is to defend voting rights and create political consequences for elected officials who restrict access to the ballot box. We believe people shouldn’t be purged simply because they’ve chosen not to vote in a given election. That’s one reason we opened a field office in Georgia this year, and why we’re working full-time to help retire vote suppressors and elect voting rights champions in their place.

And just as we requested records in Georgia, we’re now in the process of submitting records requests about voter purges in key states across the country to find out who has been removed from the rolls and why.

At the end of the day, so long as legislators in Georgia or elsewhere try to make it harder to vote, Let America Vote will make it harder for them to keep their jobs.