Georgia election officials were poised to wrongly remove hundreds of people from the state's voter rolls — until journalists with APM Reports unearthed the error.
Last week, the Georgia Secretary of State's office released a list of more than 313,000 infrequent voters — about 4 percent of all the state's registered voters — who will have their registrations canceled unless they respond to notices that are about to be mailed or otherwise confirm their registration.
An APM Reports review found 294 records on the removal list that match voters who shouldn't be purged because they'd voted recently enough to be ineligible for removal under the state's election law.
The Secretary of State's office confirmed on Thursday that the voters were incorrectly flagged as part of the state's maintenance of its voter registration list. Those voters will not have their registrations canceled.
Georgia's use of voter list purges and other alleged voter suppression tactics has been under intense scrutiny ahead of the 2020 presidential election. Last year, APM Reports investigated the state's "use it or lose it" policy that removes from the rolls people who haven't voted in recent elections. Georgia is one of a handful of states that does so. Last week, a follow-up APM Reports investigation documented how the state's strict voter registration deadline and its use of purging impacted the 2018 election.
Amid the national attention, the Secretary of State's office took the unprecedented step of publicly releasing the list of voters who have been flagged for removal. Their registrations face cancellation because there's no record of them making contact with election officials, or voting, since prior to the 2012 presidential election; they've changed their address with the post office, or official election mailings have been returned as undeliverable.
By examining election records, APM Reports identified nearly 300 voters on the notification list who cast ballots recently enough that, under state law, they shouldn't have been flagged for removal. In Lowndes County, a rural area near the border with Florida, 293 people voted in the 2012 general election, putting them on the other side of the state's cut-off for removal this year. The error appears to be a result of the state's voter registration records being out-of-sync with voter history records.
The discrepancy in voting history is a result of a data conversion problem when the state moved to a new registration system in 2013, according to the Secretary of State's office. But it's unclear why only some registration records in one county seem to have been affected.
Deb Cox, the supervisor of elections for Lowndes County, responded in an email that county elections officials were not familiar with any issues with the list of voters set to be purged.
APM Reports found one voter record from outside Lowndes County that shouldn't have been included on the removal list. That entry included the registration number of an active voter who cast a ballot in a June 2017 runoff election and made contact with election officials even more recently, in March 2018, state voter registration records show. However, the name and address reflected a different person, in a different county.
When first presented with the list of discrepancies identified by APM Reports, Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said the state had released its list "in the interest of transparency" and to "crowdsource" the process and give voters a chance to update their registrations.
Despite the errors, Walter Jones, a spokesperson with the Secretary of State's office, noted that the 293 people represented a small percentage of the 313,000 people on the notification list. "The 293 records you identified indicate an accuracy rate of greater than 99.9%," he wrote in an email.
Earlier this year, Ohio, another state where infrequent voting can trigger a removal, released a list of voters who would be removed as part of the state's list maintenance. After research by voting rights advocates revealed problems, a state review confirmed that about one in five of the voters were on the list in error.
While election officials are required to maintain up-to-date lists under federal law, each state sets its own rules for identifying and removing voters. In Georgia, election officials are in the process of sending final notices to voters who haven't voted in the past four federal elections and failed to make other contact.
The discrepancies underscore the challenges of maintaining accurate registration records. Georgia's voter registration list includes more than 6.7 million active registrations.
Officials say routine maintenance is important because it keeps the voter list accurate, which helps elections run smoothly. But the "use it or lose it" laws are controversial because they've been proven undiscerning, knocking voters in good standing off the lists along with those who should be purged because they've moved or died.
The recent APM Reports investigation found that 70,000 voters who were removed in the last purge, in 2017, went on to re-register. A majority — 65 percent — did so in the same county, meaning they would otherwise have been eligible to vote if not for the state's aggressive purge policy.
For voters who have been correctly flagged for removal by the state, there's still time to update their voter registration. They can return the postage-paid postcard that will be included in the notices or update their registration through the state's online voter registration system or at their county's election official's office. Anyone who voted in Tuesday's election shouldn't be removed from the rolls.