A 2014 report by the Brennan Center for Justice found, “Of the 11 states with the highest African-American turnout in 2008, seven have new [voting] restrictions in place. Of the 12 states with the largest Hispanic population growth between 2000 and 2010, nine passed laws making it harder to vote.”
“Because voting is a fundamental right you want to make sure you don’t burden that right unless there is a strong reason to do so,” said Nina Perales, a voting rights expert and vice president of litigation at the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Perales, who worked to overturn a provision of Arizona law that required proof of citizenship to vote in federal elections found, “very, very, very few people — a tiny handful — who were not citizens had ever registered to vote in Arizona.” Noting that only nine out of 2.7 million ballots cast in the state between 2005 and 2007 were by noncitizens, Perales contrasted that with the much larger number of people the law turned away. “In the Arizona case,” she said, “31,000 people whose registrations were rejected for lack of citizenship proof received a letter asking for more documentation. Only about one third of them went ahead and sent in the material that they needed to get on the voter roll. The other two thirds just fell away.”
Voter registration rolls themselves are notoriously incomplete and out of date. A 2012 report by the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts found that 24 million (one out of eight) voter registrations in the country are invalid or inaccurate. In response, Pew Charitable Trusts, in partnership with a number of states, created the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC), which features a robust data collection and analysis system with a very high rate of accuracy. It allows states to efficiently remove ineligible voters from their rolls yet also identify and engage the estimated 51 million eligible Americans who aren’t registered to vote.
As many as 20 Republican-controlled states, however, have been purging their voter rolls using data from Kobach’s Interstate Crosscheck program. Provided free of charge to states, the program relies heavily on first and last name matches to the exclusion of more precise identification. As a result Crosscheck mistakenly flags high numbers of African-American, Latino and Asian citizens — groups for which identical first and last names are common — as being ineligible, according to documents obtained in an Al Jazeera America investigation.
State election officials with experience using both ERIC and Crosscheck cite significant differences in the reliability of data. “We’re much more confident in that data from ERIC because the program uses very sophisticated matching criteria,” said Edgardo Cortés, Commissioner of the Virginia Department of Elections. “With Crosscheck we end up having to do a lot of additional internal analysis to narrow down the field because the initial match is a fairly broad. It’s a pretty substantial amount that we’re able to identify...as very unlikely matches.”
Lori Augino, director of elections for Washington state, shared similar concerns about the accuracy of Crosscheck data, which relies heavily on first and last name matches. “Crosscheck is a free program but you do have to spend a lot of your staff time vetting the information,” she said. “You may identify a potentially duplicate voter whose name is Pamela Smith because a Pamela Smith may also reside in another state. It’s a pretty common name. So you have to do some additional due diligence to determine if that’s truly the same voter. Those are steps that we don’t have to take with the ERIC program.”
As prevalent as attempts at limiting turnout may be, their critics see hope. “I don’t think that voter suppression is a sustainable long-term strategy,” said Berman. “There’s a very significant risk of alienating the fastest growing demographic groups in the country.”
The makeup of the nation’s voters is only becoming more diverse. In the 2012 presidential election, turnout among African-Americans surpassed that of white voters for the first time, according to an analysis by the Associated Press. A recent Pew Research Center survey found that a record 27.3 million Latinos will be eligible to vote in the November election. Among the 10 states with the highest percentage of eligible Latino voters, six of them are led by a Republican governor and/or legislature.
“These are attempts to nibble away at the electorate,” Perales said. “But the much larger issue is that of demographic change, and ultimately that’s not going to be stopped by a voter ID law.”