Voting-rights groups have asked a federal court to be included in a lawsuit alleging improper maintenance of voter rolls in Allegheny County -- a suit the groups fear could result in voters being unintentionally disenfranchised.
Monday’s request came after Allegheny County election officials were sued by the Public Interest Legal Foundation last week, a conservative group that has challenged the maintenance of voter lists across the country.
“These voter purges disproportionately impact people of color,” said ACLU of Pennsylvania legal director Vic Walczek. “The danger of this kind of list maintenance is if it’s not done properly or if it’s done at the last minute before an election, people don’t know that it’s happened and they don't find out until Election Day and they end up being disenfranchised.”
The ACLU is representing the state and local chapters of the League of Women Voters along with two other activist groups. Walczak says they don’t think Allegheny County officials would improperly remove voters on purpose. "But we want to make sure that there isn’t some improper mistaken court order that might require that to happen. It’s about protecting the ability of all eligible voters to cast a ballot on Election Day and have that vote counted.”
Walczek said he’s “mystified” about why the foundation chose to challenge the county’s voter rolls, because elections officials removed 68,000 inactive voters in January.
“We had met with the county, talked to them about the procedures they employed to make sure that eligible voters aren't part of that list clean-up, we’re satisfied with that,” Walczek said. “Despite the county going to those efforts, this group dropped the lawsuit on them.”
Walczek emphasized that maintaining an accurate list of voter rolls is important, but it “is secondary to ensuring that all eligible voters remain on the roll, are not purged unnecessarily and in fact on Election Day are allowed to vote.”
The process to remove inactive voters is lengthy. In Allegheny County, officials contact voters who haven’t voted in five years. If the voter doesn’t respond, officials must legally wait through two federal election cycles (four years) before removing them. The National Voter Registration Act forbids wholesale purges of voter rolls less than 90 days before an election.
But a representative from the Public Interest Legal Foundation said there’s something “uniquely wrong” happening in Allegheny County.
“What we’re suspecting here is that normal things are happening, people are moving, people are getting married and changing their names, what have you, and once it’s submitted to the county it gets garbled somewhere,” said Logan Churchwell, communications and research director at the Public Interest Legal Foundation.
Churchwell said it’s important for election officials to have well-maintained voter lists in a post-2016 world, where the possibility of election interference is high. He said lists that contain deceased voters and duplicate entries could add to the chaos.
“So if those kinds of things sail through and they sit there for years and no one notices something being wrong, then what does it say about someone trying to attack that system with a very well-funded motive to make a mess of things?” He said. “How do you tell the difference between a screw-up from 15 years ago versus something that’s fresh?”