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Democrats roll out new tool to combat voter purges

The Democratic committee hopes the program will prove to be a powerful tool in the fight against states — in the name of protecting against fraudulent voting — removing voters who had either not voted recently or not responded to mailings from the state. The hope, said a number of operatives involved with the effort, is that the more streamlined program will make it easier for campaigns to both realize when a voter purge may have happened and contact the voters who, possibly unknowingly, may have been removed.

The tool, built by the DNC tech team, allows campaigns and state parties to visualize voters who have been purged or moved to an inactive list and then export those names directly with associated phone numbers and addresses. The campaigns can then target those photos with calls, text messages and mail, notifying them that they have either been purged or marked inactive, often the first designation towards purging the names.

“Our goal is to ensure that all eligible voters can cast a ballot and have that ballot counted. This tool will allow us to detect malicious purge and identify the voters impacted by those activities,” said Reyna Walters-Morgan, the DNC’s voter protection director. “Time is of the essence to identify those voters who are impacted and get them back on the rolls as soon as possible. And this tool is one thing that will help us with that process.”

Walters-Morgan said that the party has found that younger people and communities of color have been the most impacted by voter purges.

Nellwyn Thomas, the party’s chief technology officer and a former Facebook employee, said this latest tool will allow “voter protection teams, data directors and state parties in all 50 states to monitor and track changes to voter files” and then reach out to voters who have either been purged or at risk of being kicked off the rolls.

“We care a lot about data, but the impacts don’t matter unless they are resulting in real contact with voters,” Thomas said. “And nothing is more important than giving people the right to vote, especially with everything we have on the ballot, this cycle.”

The party hopes to make the tool as widely used as possible: They have made the tool streamlined enough that staffers without data experience can use it and will offer trainings in the next few weeks.

Michael Ahrens, communications director for the Republican National Committee, said of the new DNC tool: “Unlike the DNC, we have been providing basic data like this to campaigns and state parties free of charge for at least 10 years, and we help facilitate tens of thousands of these registrations every year. Often times we learn that someone has moved or become ineligible even earlier than the state does, and work to re-register them then. It’s a testament to how sophisticated our data operation is.”

Voting rights figure to be a key issue headed into the general election, where the ongoing fight against the coronavirus pandemic has altered the way many Americans vote. With some states pushing to expand the use vote-by-mail, some in those states — primarily Republicans — have fought to remove certain voters from each state’s voter rolls.

Democrats and Republicans in Wisconsin, a key battleground state in November, have taken a fight over the voting status of more than 200,000 to the state’s Supreme Court. After a county judge ruled that the voters should be removed from the rolls, an appellate court stopped the purge, bringing the case to the highest court in the state.
But Wisconsin is far from the only state where voters are being removed from state rolls. An analysis from the Brennan Center for Justice, a left leaning voting rights group, found that voter purges have gone up in recent years, with nearly 16 million voters being removed from the rolls between 2014 and 2016.
Republican Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, with the backing of a judge, removed hundreds of thousands of registered voters it classified as “inactive” from its voting rolls in December 2019. The move was made under a newly passed state provision that said the state must remove registration records from the voter rolls that have been deemed “inactive” for more than three years. A voter is categorized as “inactive” if they don’t vote in two general elections and have had no contact with board of elections in that time.
And voter purges have happened in Ohio, too, including in 2019 where Republican Secretary of State Frank LaRose largely crowdsourced the process of finding out who on the list shouldn’t have been purged. The New York Times reported in 2019 that the figure was around 40,000 people — or 1 in 5 names on the list.

Democrats believe that moves like these could significantly impact elections in November, including down ballot races that don’t get nearly as much attention as the presidential campaign.

One such case was the Kentucky governor’s race in 2019, where the DNC, via quality control checks, identified nearly 175,000 voters that the Kentucky Board of Elections placed on an inactive list in 2019. The Kentucky Democratic Party sued and won, keeping the voters on one master list. Democrat Andy Beshear won the subsequent election by just over 5,000 votes.

Catherine Tarsney, analytics director at the DNC, says the hope is that by expanding the universe of Democrats able to use this sort of tech tool, more examples like Kentucky will be found ahead of November’s election.

“We’re really excited to be able to combine that wealth of technical data with an easy to use tool, to put it in the hands of people who have the contextual information to understand when a change should raise alarm bells and lead to action on the ground,” Tarsney said, “whether that action is going to the state’s election administration and contesting removals from the voter file or direct outreach to voters to help them take the steps they need to reregister or to reactivate their registration.”

But the impact to the presidential election between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden could also be profound.

In 2016, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by less than 23,000 votes in Wisconsin, a miniscule margin compared to the over 200,000 voters who could be removed from the state’s rolls. And Democrats are hopeful that Georgia could be a sleeper pick-up opportunity for them in 2020, as the suburbs there revolt against Trump.

“The states that are battlegrounds are battlegrounds because they will be decided by very tight margins,” said David Bergstein, head of battleground state communications for the DNC. “Each of these races is going to be tight and we’re taking nothing for granted and that includes making sure that every voter who might be inactive gets the opportunity to participate.”

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