From 2014 to 2016, 16 million voters were removed from voter registration lists. Voter roll purges keep voting rolls accurate by canceling the registration of people who have passed away, moved, or are for any reason no longer able to vote in the jurisdiction. However, many election officials use faulty and inadequate systems or remove voters for reasons such as not voting in recent elections. Between 2013 and 2018, four states directed illegal purges and four put in place unlawful purge rules, including not warning voters that they may be removed. Voter roll purges threaten to weaken American democracy by undermining democratic participation, contributing to stealth authoritarianism, and disproportionately impacting voters of color.
These purges, especially when only 21 states have same-day voter registration, can inhibit US citizens from voting, undermining an essential element of democracy, electoral participation. According to Robert Dahl, democracy requires that citizens can, “formulate preferences,” “signify preferences,” and “have their preferences weighed equally”. In the US, elections are used to allow citizens to signify preferences. However, voter roll purges limit this ability. For example, Alabama and Indiana have policies that immediately remove voters without giving them notice and neither has same-day voter registration. A US citizen in either state, could show up to vote on election day and be denied access to the ballot box due to an inaccurate voter roll purge that they were not notified of. Since these states do not allow for same-day voter registration, the citizen would have no way of registering and casting their vote in that election. Without casting a vote, this citizen would be unable to signify their preference because of government restrictions and no fault of their own. This undermines electoral participation, one of Dahl’s basic requirements for democracy, thus weakening American democracy.
The subversion of democratic elections and participation through voter purges highlights the use of stealth authoritarianism in the US. Stealth authoritarianism is when leaders use formal, legal rules to undermine democratic institutions and maintain power. Since democracy is still generally supported in Western democracies, it would be difficult to explicitly overthrow the US government without a strong opposition movement. However, the use of stealth authoritarianism can be more difficult to oppose due to its connection to legitimate democratic laws. Voter roll purges can be considered stealth authoritarianism because they use already established electoral laws and processes. This makes it easier to claim that nothing un-democratic is occurring and it is simply part of the electoral process even while it undermines the right to vote and democracy. In 2018, the Justice Department inquired about states’ purging practices, signaling a possible move to claim that some jurisdictions are not aggressive enough. This demonstrates not just individual states, but the US federal government, specifically under the Trump administration, supporting these stealth authoritarian practices. According to Ozan Varol in Stealth Authoritarianism, the consistent use of stealth authoritarianism along with the absence of electoral turnover, “is a strong indicator that the regime is sliding towards the authoritarian end of the democracy”. While the US has had electoral turnover in recent years, this still demonstrates the critical threat undemocratic voter roll purges pose toward democracy.
This threat is heightened by the fact that voter roll purges disproportionately impact voters of color. By systematically excluding voters of color, right-wing populist leaders, such as Trump and his allies, gain more control over elections while furthering racial divisions and exclusion. Groups such as the conservative American Civil Rights Union have pushed for a more aggressive cleansing of voter rolls. ACRU has specifically targeted and sued counties in Texas and Mississippi with high Latino and Black populations. Latino and Asian voters are also more likely to be falsely matched with other people and thus removed from voter registration lists. The specific targeting and exclusion of voters of color, while not new to American elections, benefits Trump and his allies. In 2020, 55% of white voters voted for Trump while only 8% of Black voters did. The exclusion of voters of color increases the impact these white voters, who more heavily favor Trump, have on the election. This unfairly alters elections in favor of right-wing populists like Trump. The disproportionate impact of voter purges also furthers racial divisions and exclusion within the US. A key element of populism is “the people” who a leader represents and speaks for. Right-wing populism, and Trumpism specifically, defines “the people” as white US-born Americans. This can be seen through his racist policies such as the Muslim ban and his responses to violent white supremacists. By excluding voters of color, voter roll purges help materialize this idea that only white Americans deserve to be considered “the people” and have their voices heard. This promotes racial divisions and undermines national unity which according to Dankwart Rustow, is the most essential foundational element of democracy. Voter roll purges weaken US democracy by unfairly shifting elections for right-wing populists while furthering the racial exclusion of this populist ideology.
Voter roll purges threaten US democracy by disrupting citizens’ ability to signify their preferences, contributing to stealth authoritarianism, and disproportionately impacting voters of color. Unfortunately, voter roll purges are not the only type of voter suppression increasing in the US. In May 2022, 11 states had bills in their legislatures that would restrict voting through stricter voter ID requirements and other forms of voter suppression. Similarly to voter roll purges, these undermine the ability of citizens to vote and thus signify their preferences, contribute to stealth authoritarianism and disproportionately affect voters of color. These trends threaten to undermine democracy in the US. However, even with growing restrictions, the 2020 election had the largest voter turnout in the 21st century, and organizations such as the ACLU have sued states for their voter roll purging. Resistance to the erosion of US democracy is possible, but must continuously call out and push against these often hidden threats.