Investigation of State Voter Purge Goes Public

December 2, 2009 A recently completed state program to cancel Michigan voter registrations was flawed and may have violated state law and the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). Unprecedented in Michigan, the program was poorly planned, mismanaged, often hidden from local clerks, mostly invisible to the media, and unaccountable to the public.

MERA is publishing these conclusions after an investigation that lasted for more than two years:
The 2006 Michigan Voter Purge.

Conducted by the Michigan Bureau of Elections from July 2006 until June 2009, the state program sought to remove invalid voter registrations. It was the first voter list maintenance to be centrally administered in Michigan and began when the Bureau sent more than 7 million voters a purportedly “educational” postcard. When the U.S. Post Office returned cards and indicated a wrong address, the voters’ registrations were marked for possible cancellation. The report found that the Bureau's use of 'educational' postcards "effectively masked the fact that the postcards were part of a voter list purge."

The investigation revealed that the state program was very likely a response to partisan political pressure from the Voting Rights Section of the Bush administration’s Department of Justice. "Under pressure from the Department of Justice, Michigan’s state-level election officials chose by mounting the program to participate in a partisan attempt to manipulate the election system with minimal regard for voters’ rights or the responsibilities of local clerks."

In the end, the program was expensive, with limited effectiveness and a significant error rate. The $2 million cost was ten times higher per tagged record than previous efforts conducted in targeted jurisdictions with the cooperation of local clerks. The program tagged 230,000 registrations for possible cancellation. 122,598 were finally cancelled in June 2009. Of those, the report estimates that about 2,611 (2.1%) were cancelled erroneously. The program’s cost was $16.31 per tagged record, as compared to $1.58 per tagged record in the earlier targeted approach.

The program conformed to NVRA requirements to give voters notice and observe a grace period before finally cancelling registrations. But it failed to treat voters uniformly and it did not keep adequate records. Both are required by the NVRA. The program also flaunted Michigan laws that give local clerks responsibility for voter list maintenance.

The report makes several recommendations. To avoid costly purges, the report suggests a “dynamic” registration process that ties voter records to other governmental record-keeping activities. Voter registrations would be automatically added or updated when other milestones in life are reached, such as high school and college registration, employment changes, auto and driver’s license renewals, registration for health care, or death certificates.

To improve government accountability, the Michigan Secretary of State should:

Although it is unknown whether any election outcomes were affected by the state program, the investigation shows that Michigan’s election system is vulnerable to partisan manipulation. “The primary importance of the Michigan program,” the report concludes, “lies not in the very modest improvement in list accuracy that it may have accomplished, but rather in the examples it presents of what not to do and what practices to avoid . . . , if voting rights are to be respected and honored.”

Contacts: Jan BenDor, State Coordinator, 734-484-1744, jan@bendor.org
              Phil Shepard, Report Editor, 517-332-0761, shepard@acd.net

The complete report is available at:
              www.MichiganElectionReformAlliance.Org/2006MIVoterPurge.pdf


Was Your Voter Registration Cancelled?

Voters can easily check whether their voter registration has been cancelled by calling their local clerk (city or township).

Voters that have any doubt about their registration should immediately visit their city or township clerk and complete a new voter registration form, if needed. Registration forms can also be completed at any Secretary of State Branch Office or downloaded and then mailed or delivered to the city or township clerk.