While the Obama administration pushes to stop people from being purged from voter rolls, a conservative-leaning group is pressing localities to clean up their lists — including suing two Mississippi counties where more names appear on the rolls than there are eligible voters.
On behalf of the nonpartisan American Civil Rights Union, three former U.S. Justice Department attorneys filed lawsuits last week in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi seeking an injunction to compel election officials in the two counties to purge all people no longer eligible to cast ballots.
Jefferson Davis and Walthall county officials say the ACRU’s legal move is nothing more than grandstanding and that they’re diligently working to shrink their inflated voter rolls.
The lawsuit says Walthall County has 14,108 registered voters but only 11,368 residents who are eligible to vote. In Jefferson Davis County, ACRU says, there 10,078 active voters but only 9,536 eligible voters.
“It is exactly in counties [like these] where lawlessness prevails that corrupted voter rolls are so dangerous, because you can’t trust the outcome of elections when you’ve got 124 percent of people registered to vote,” said J. Christian Adams, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuits.
“The status quo is an embarrassment, it’s lawless, it’s criminal, it violates federal law, and the answer is to fix it,” he said.
Mr. Adams accused the Obama administration’s Justice Department and the attorney general of failing to properly enforce federal voting rights law, which “forces private parties like ACRU to go in and do the job Eric Holder ought to be doing.”
Mr. Adams said Jefferson Davis County was targeted because of voter violations there, including at least one case where a ballot was cast by a dead person. In Walthall, he said, the gap between registered and eligible voters was too big to ignore.
But ACRU’s overall goal isn’t just to force voter purges in the two rural Mississippi counties of differing ethnic makeup — Jefferson Davis is 59 percent black and Walthall is 54 percent white. Rather, if the court rules in its favor, the lawsuits would serve as legal precedent to trigger purges in the more than 250 counties nationwide with similar voter roll irregularities.
Mr. Adams says estimates show about 4 million ineligible voters nationwide were registered heading into November’s presidential election, including almost 2 million dead people.
“We cannot have clean elections with 4 million ineligible voters on the rolls. You just can’t do it,” he said. “It has to be fixed on a nationwide basis.”
But the counties say they are caught between conservative groups pressing to clean up voter rolls — a move that critics say helps Republicans — and liberal organizations that say such action threatens to disenfranchise minorities, the poor and students, who generally vote Democratic.
“That’s kind of a political hot button,” said Walthall County Circuit Clerk Vernon E. Alford, who serves as the county’s top election official. “You’re really between a rock and a hard place.”
Liberal groups, as well has the Justice Department, are particularly wary of communities conducting wide-scale voter purges during presidential election years, meaning many local election boards put off such action until slower years. Therefore, the two Mississippi counties say their voter lists now are larger than they would be if not for November’s national elections.
“You’ve got two sides battling here,” said Jefferson Davis County Circuit Clerk Clint W. Langley. “You’ve got [ACRU] and you’ve got the other extreme saying to register everybody and their brother, during an election year especially.”
Mr. Langley said his county has made significant progress in trimming its rolls, saying there was about a 3,000-person disparity between registered and eligible voters when he first was elected to office in 2006. The gap is now about 440, he said.
“We’ve come a long way but we’ve got a ways to go,” Mr. Langley said. “We want our rolls to be right.
The counties say the voter rolls easily and innocuously become bloated for several reasons, including when voters die or move away and neglect to inform election officials. Election commissions routinely scan newspaper obituary pages in their attempt to keep their records up-to-date. The state also informs local election officials when a voter moves and reregisters elsewhere in Mississippi.
But while computer programs and other methods help in purges, the process is not an exact science, county officials say. Unless local election officials get direct permission from a voter to take them off their rolls, officials must wait several election cycles to delete their name.
Mr. Langley also took exception to the ACRU’s accusation that Jefferson Davis is a county rife with voter fraud. He said the case of a dead man voting — along with another ballot cast with the name of man who was hospitalized in intensive care on Election Day — were isolated situations and occurred years ago.
“It’s not as bad as they made it seem,” Mr. Langley said of the ACRU’s complaint.
But the ACRU says Mississippi, as well as counties and states across the country, can be doing much more to fix their voting roll problems.
Mr. Adams pointed to Virginia, which he says has an aggressive and effective voter purging policy, as an example for others to follow.
“Malice is not an element to a [voter] violation,” he said. “What matters is whether or not you’re doing your job keeping the rolls clean, and it’s pretty obvious to anyone who can do math, the answer is these places have failed.”