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Georgia Purges Voter Rolls (Again)

Georgia ballot box
By A.J. Firstman | Last updated on

On July 19, Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger announced a planned purge of inactive voters from the official voter rolls, which would take effect this month. The purges will affect over 191,000 inactive voters, unless they take action to maintain their registration by responding to mailed notices from county election offices within 30 days of receipt.

Voter roll purges are an enduring yet controversial fixture in Georgia elections, although it is certainly not the only state to have this practice (Indiana and Ohio, for example, have had similar cases). In Georgia, the rolls have been "cleaned" every two years since at least 2017, when then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp purged over 534,000 voters from the rolls. This was the largest single removal of voters in U.S. history. Kemp cited the need to keep voter rolls "clean" in keeping with Georgia's "Use It or Lose It" policy, which essentially dictated that voters who did not cast their ballots consistently would lose their active registration status.

The voter purges seem very reasonable if you ignore the larger context. On its face, the idea of "cleaning" the voter rolls seems fairly innocuous. After all, why keep people on the rolls if they've died, moved away, or decided the democratic process just isn't for them? Taking voters like these off the rolls seems like a perfectly innocent way to trim the lists and reduce the amount of potential fraud, right?

Much of the suspicion around Georgia's 2019, 2021, and 2023 voter purges stems from the 2017 purge. Kemp, who incited that purge, had his eye on a bigger prize than just Secretary of State: he was planning his run for the 2018 gubernatorial election — which he won. In other words, now-Governor Kemp was in charge of overseeing his own election — an election from which he refused to recuse himself until after the votes had been tallied. It's generally considered bad form to be in charge of an election in which you are running as a candidate, but Kemp didn't seem to care. He was technically allowed to purge the voter rolls, even though over 100,000 voters who would have otherwise been eligible to vote were "cleansed" from the rosters. And he was technically allowed to stay in his elected position as Secretary of State during the election. So he did both.

Technicalities aside, the purging of voter rolls in states like Georgia leaves something of a sour taste in the mouths of voters and advocates of fair elections around the country. In case you weren't aware, it turns out that Georgia (among other states) has a long and ugly history of supressing the vote of its citizens — especially those from minority ethnic groups.

If we were to ask "why purge voter rolls?" we would arrive at two very different answers depending on who you ask. The people who would call the purges "cancellations" are typically of the opinion that there's nothing sinister going on. No voter suppression. No targeting of minority voters. Just protecting the integrity of our elections.

On the other hand, the people who call this practice a "purge" would beg to differ. Removing potentially eligible voters from the rolls smacks of the kind of suppression that may have been the deciding factor behind Stacey Abrams' 2018 loss at the governor's seat. If you're thinking that such a practice wouldn't make a difference in the outcome of major elections: Kemp's margin of victory in that election was smaller than the number of potentially eligible voters that he purged, so the idea isn't that far-fetched.

Whether or not you think the voter purges are discriminatory or necessary, and whether you think they constitute voter suppression likely falls on partisan lines. It's impossible to say whether the purges caused voters to miss their chance to cast a ballot, and the lack of evidence of meaningful voter fraud makes it hard to say if the purges actually did anything. We know what the official party line is, and we know what the objections are. But this issue is one that has and will continue to be used by either side of the political spectrum to drum up sympathy from voters. So the real question is, what do you think?

Have more questions about your voting rights? Browse the free articles and resources on voting law at FindLaw's Learn About the Law:

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