Purged: Tennessee’s processes for maintaining voter rolls

When Betty Burrus arrived at her Shelby County voting precinct to cast her ballot in May's local election, she was told she couldn't vote -- because she was listed as deceased.

Her husband had died, and his name had been taken off the voter rolls, as Tennessee law requires. "They purged him but they purged me at the same time," Burrus, 93, said in a phone interview. "I've been voting in every election my entire life since I was 21," and she wants to keep voting, she said.

Tennessee voters can be taken off the voter rolls legally for a number of reasons. Just over 79,000 names were removed from the state's rolls for the six months that ended on Dec. 1, 2021, according to the most recent information available online. Situations such as the one Burrus experienced do happen, but they are rare and can be corrected, election officials and observers in Tennessee said.

All states have voter list maintenance procedures, Amanda Zoch, the National Conference of State Legislatures' project manager, elections and redistricting, said in an email. "Removing large numbers of voters from a list can be quite typical because each year a certain percentage of registered voters will die, move out of state, etc."

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Voter list maintenance also includes the addition of new names, as new people register to vote for the first time and others move from one county or state to another, for example. It's a continuing process that's initially handled in Tennessee by 95 separate county election commissions according to procedures set out in state law. The Tennessee Secretary of State's Office oversees the county election commissions, and there's continuing communication between state and county offices.

For example, county election commissions send new voter registrations to the state each night, so state voter information is constantly being maintained, said Jeff Roberts, Davidson County's administrator of elections. Counties also keep in touch with each other as people move among counties throughout the year, he said. Other state agencies provide county election commissions with information used to update voter rolls. One example is information on deaths from the Tennessee Department of Health.

"We always hear about outliers, but in Tennessee, (purging of voters) hasn't been a huge problem," League of Women Voters of Tennessee President Debby Gould said. The state does a "pretty good job" in maintaining and purging voter rolls, she said.

"Any time humans are involved, there's a potential for mistakes," Roberts said. Much of the work of maintaining voter rolls is "common sense, and we're not just willy-nilly taking people off. ... We have to have some really good reason (to believe) you're not in Davidson County anymore."

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"(R)emoving ineligible voters from the voter rolls makes the elections held more trustworthy," Julia Bruck, director of communications for the Secretary of State's Office, said in an email. "Allowing ineligible voters to participate in an election can subject the election to contests of elections and dilutes the votes of eligible voters. Only the eligible registered voters of a jurisdiction should be selecting the elected officials who will be making decisions that affect that jurisdiction."

There are at least two possible reasons for what happened with Burrus, the elderly Shelby County voter.

Shelby County Administrator of Elections Linda Phillips says now-older female voters may have registered to vote in the 1950s and 1960s using their husband's name, as Mrs. John Doe. A clerk checking voter rolls these days for the late John Doe may have seen Mrs. John Doe and deleted her by mistake, Phillips says.

Another possibility, Bruck said, is that a female voter may have registered many years ago under her husband's Social Security number. "There was a period in history where women who didn't have enough earnings to qualify for Social Security benefits on their own used their husband's Social Security number," she said. "Although it is rare, we have seen this before."

Whatever the reason, voters like Burrus -- and many others who have found they have been taken off the voter rolls --can get reinstated and vote. First, they should tell a poll worker why they think they should be able to vote. A county election commission can sometimes, during early voting, correct voter registration errors while a voter is present, Bruck said.

If the error can't be corrected immediately, voters can cast a provisional ballot, she and others said. Their voting status will be checked, and their vote may count in that election. Even if the vote doesn't count, the provisional ballot will contain the same information given when someone registers to vote, so the provisional ballot works as a reregistration for the next election.

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"We notify everyone who fills out a provisional ballot," Phillips said. If voters have been placed back on the voter rolls, they will also receive a voter registration card with the notification.

Even if a voter has been taken off the list and doesn't cast a provisional ballot, they generally can reregister to vote. Of course, if a person has died or been convicted of what is called a permanently disqualifying felony, they can't reregister. Only some felonies are permanently disqualifying; those convicted of other felonies can apply to have their voting rights restored under state law.

Roberts said most people are removed or purged from Davidson County voting rolls for two reasons: upon their death and upon moving out of the county, the latter of which accounts for the largest number of removals. Many of these moves are to and from Davidson and surrounding counties -- the so-called "doughnut" counties of Sumner, Wilson, Rutherford, Williamson, Cheatham, Dickson and Robertson, he said.

Roberts and Zoch said the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, a federal law, forbids states from removing voters "simply for failure to vote."

Bruck said under Tennessee law, a person's name can be removed from voting rolls for eight reasons:

-- The person's death.

-- Moving outside the county of registration or becoming registered in another jurisdiction.

-- Failing to respond to an address confirmation notice, not appearing to vote and not updating the voter registration between the time the notice is sent and the second regular November election held after the notice was sent.

-- Felony conviction.

-- Request of voter.

-- Judicial order of incompetency.

-- Not being a U.S. citizen.

-- Change of name for more than 90 days for any reason, except for marriage or divorce.

Bruck said the first four reasons are the most common reasons for removing a voter's name. The state Elections Division does not generate a report showing percentages of voters removed from the voter rolls for each statutory reason, Bruck said.

There is a federal report, generated every two years, that shows percentages of voters removed by reason for removal, in each state. The report contains information for the even-numbered calendar years in which the presidential and midterm elections occur; the most recent report came out in 2021 and covered calendar year 2020.

That information in the federal report isn't directly comparable to Tennessee's reports on voter registration and removals, posted on the secretary of state's website. The reports cover different time periods.

Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.

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[Source: Tennessee Secretary of State’s website, sos.tn.gov.]