While the US State of Georgia has been attracting attention and condemnation for purging its voter rolls, the controversy around voting rights extends far beyond one state ahead of the midterms. Maya Shwayder reports.
Audrey Calkins, a 33-year-old lawyer, had already voted in two elections in her county in the US state of Tennessee when she showed up to vote in the Republican presidential primary on March 1, 2016. That morning, she showed up at the polls bright and early, presented her ID and her voter registration card to the election official, who looked her up in the system.
"They told me I wasn't on the list," Calkins said. "I said, 'Check that you’re spelling my name right.'" The official turned his computer screen around so that Calkins could see he was spelling her name correctly, and indeed, she was not on the list.
"They said I wasn't a registered voter," Calkins said. "I was blown away, because obviously I had just voted a couple of months before in both October and November." Calkins was turned away from voting.
In New York City, Turner Cowles, a 28-year-old journalist, tried to vote during the 2016 presidential election via absentee ballot in his native Florida, where he was still registered. His ballot arrived a month before the election, he filled it out promptly and sent it right back within two days, he said.
"I was thinking, 'This election is terrifying, this election is too important for me to miss this vote,'" Cowles said.
But his ballot never made it. "I didn't know until Election Day, when I checked online and it said 'Ballot not received.'" Cowles called his county in Florida and was told there was nothing they could do, short of him flying down to Florida from New York to vote in person.
"I was just falling off my chair," said Cowles, who said he has voted in every major election since he was eligible to. "That was the first and only time — at the time — that my vote didn't count. Every other time [that I voted absentee] it had been received." To this day, he doesn't know exactly what happened.
A year later, Cowles tried to change his registration from Florida to New York. But when he showed up to vote in the New York mayoral election in 2017, he was told he wasn't registered.
"I grew up with, [voting] is a civic duty," said Cowles. "This is the one thing that is most important about being an American."
Calkins' story has a somewhat happy ending. With the help of another lawyer and much persistence over the course of almost seven months, she eventually learned what happened: a bureaucrat on the election commission had misread a form and canceled her registration by mistake. She reregistered and can now vote in the county where she still lives.
And a year after she was denied the vote, Calkins testified in front of the Tennessee state General Assembly in support of a new appeals process that her representative had championed after she contacted him with her story. The process would create a way for people like her, who had been accidentally purged from the voter rolls, to prove that they deserved to vote.
Calkins said the whole experience made her angry but also motivated to do something about it. "I have a law degree," she said. "I am trained by profession to navigate difficult government agencies whose priorities lie elsewhere. No one wants to deal with a single voter who has a problem."
But the issue of voting rights is "extremely prevalent" where she lives, Calkins said. "Frankly, I was the best candidate to do something about it."
Cowles' story did not conclude as neatly. He was left feeling frustrated and, in his words, disenfranchised. "It makes me feel like why bother showing up," he said. "If this has happened twice, and if this has happened in arguably the most important election in my lifetime, if it didn't count then, what's the purpose of showing up for the midterm?"
Accounts like theirs, incidentally both are white, can look like one-offs. A simple screw-up in the system. But they are far from the only people in the United States who have been denied the right to vote either because of bureaucratic bungling or legal meddling.
In the US State of Virginia in 2013, 39,000 US voters were rendered ineligible to vote. It turned out that a database had told officials these people had moved out of the state. But the database was faulty.
In Arkansas, just months before the 2016 presidential election, 7,700 people were stricken from official state lists of voters. The state said all these people had felony convictions and were thus not allowed to vote, but many of the people on the list had no criminal history at all.
Similarly, in Brooklyn, New York, in 2016, 200,000 people tried to vote in a presidential primary and were turned away at their polling place. The state attorney general found that their names had been improperly deleted.
This year in Georgia, reports say that more than 53,000 voter applications are on hold because of "minor discrepancies" in the forms. Seventy percent of those people were African-American.
These numbers, provided by the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan law and policy institute, paint a troubling picture of the state of voting rights in the US. Since 2013, four states — Florida, New York, North Carolina and Virginia — had illegally removed people from their voter rolls. Between 2014 and 2016, they found that across the country, 16 million people had been rendered unable to vote.
The problem in Georgia
According to Richard Barron, director of the Board of Registrations and Elections in Fulton County, Georgia, the sort of work that is currently being done on the Georgia voter rolls is completely routine. Georgia systematically updates its voter rolls every other year.
"We're trying to keep it as accurate as possible so that we know that people still live in the county, that they're registered voters in the county," Barron told DW.
The current law in Georgia stipulates that if a citizen does not vote in two federal elections, they will be moved from an "active" voter list to an "inactive" voter list, and officials will attempt to notify them. If no successful contact is made after a certain amount of time, Barron said, then they will be removed.
But in addition to being removed from the voter rolls, Georgia has very stringent rules about registering to vote. This has been called the "exact match" problem: if an official suspects a signature is wrong, or there's information missing on the registration application, or something is misspelled, the application will be put on hold.
"When you have paper, handwritten applications, sometimes it's hard to decipher handwriting, or they're incomplete," Barron said. "I think a lot of people who are in that pending status, most of those applications are from paper. It's not necessarily human error at the county level. It can be that whoever filled out the application either didn't put in all the necessary information, or their handwriting is illegible."
Barron also said that in Fulton County in 2014, about 8 percent of voter registration applications were incomplete, illegible or had clearly been filled out by the same person. "We entered as much as we could, and then they'd just sit in pending," he said. "Some of those are still probably in there."
"There are always one-off errors or issues in elections," said Julie Ebenstein, a senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Voting Rights Project. "What's problematic is once you see something larger or systemic— 53,000 registration applications placed on hold with very little basis or necessity to do that — it is different from the one-off administrative errors that crop up in elections."
Systematic or a mistake?
It's not just that states remove people from the voter rolls in ways that may or may not be legitimate. In 2018, seven states passed laws impacting voting access, for example, by canceling the option to vote early, making people prove their citizenship at the polls, and in one case, striking down the ability to vote "straight party" on a ballot, meaning that a voter could simply chose to punch one button that would automatically vote for all the candidates of one political party or another.
In many cases, later lawsuits found that these states' laws were specifically designed to discriminate against African-American and other minority voters. The courts struck down laws that restricted voter access in Michigan after finding that the laws were openly racially targeted, according to a report from the Brennan Center. Laws in North Carolina were struck down for similar reasons, said John Carella, a staff attorney for voting rights at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.
"It really strains belief to say that there's no intention or no understanding that what this will do is disenfranchise a lot of minority voters," said Carella.
"Whether or not it's targeted, it's certainly known what the effect of some of these actions are," said Ebenstein, referring to the fact that many of these laws and purges will disproportionately affect minority voters. "In Georgia, about 30 percent of the voting age population is African-American, but 70 percent of the voters with registrations currently on hold are black. That's hugely problematic. Whether Georgia went out intending to do that or not, they're responsible for the outcomes of their policies."