Purged: Tennessee’s processes for maintaining voter rolls

By: - September 27, 2022 6:02 am
(Photo: Mario Tamo/Getty Images)

(Photo: Mario Tamo/Getty Images)

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 are rare and can be corrected, election officials and observers in Tennessee said.

Now-elderly 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 delete the female voter by mistake.

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.,” she said.

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.

Information for Tennessee voters

This year, the deadline for voter registration before the November election is Tuesday, Oct. 11. That means a printed voter registration application must be postmarked or hand-delivered to the proper county election commission office by that date. Online applications must be submitted by that date. To be on the safe side, make sure to register well before the deadline.

Also, unless you are on the permanent absentee voting register, enrolled in the Safe at Home program, or have previously voted in the county in which you are registered, you must appear in person to vote in the first election after you have registered by mail or online at GoVoteTN.gov, the Tennessee Secretary of State’s website says.

Information to apply to vote absentee by mail is available online at https://sos.tn.gov/elections/guides/guide-to-absentee-voting. The page spells out all the ways in which a voter can qualify to cast an absentee-by-mail ballot. Registered voters may request an application for a by-mail ballot no earlier than 90 days before the election and no later than seven days before the election. The application must be received by the appropriate county election commission no later than seven days before the election. For this year’s November election, the application must be received no later than Nov. 1. The website includes a link for an absentee ballot request and tells voters to make sure to provide all required information. There are specific instructions for making the request by email. If the voter doesn’t include all required information on the application, the county election commission will return the application to you so you can make corrections and resubmit it.

The absentee voting web page includes this notice:

“A person who is not an employee of an election commission commits a Class E felony if such person gives an application for an absentee ballot to any person or commits a Class A misdemeanor if such person gives an unsolicited request for application for absentee ballot to any person. T.C.A. § 2-6-202(c)(3) and (4).”

The completed absentee ballot must be mailed so that the county election receives it no later than when the polls close on Election Day. You must return your ballot by mail (USPS, FedEx, UPS, etc.). Hand delivery or handing it to a poll worker during early voting or on Election Day is not permitted.

This year, Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8. Early voting will start on Wednesday, Oct. 19 and end on Thursday, Nov. 3. Up for election in Tennessee are candidates for governor, U.S. House of Representatives, Tennessee House and Senate and half of the membership of the Tennessee Senate. Each county election commission determines sites and hours for early voting.

Not sure you’re registered or where to vote? Check voter registration status, polling place and more at GoVoteTN, available at the Tennessee Secretary of State’s website, https://sos.tn.gov/govotetn. Voters also can register online at GoVoteTN, in person at county election commissions, or through a voter registration drive. 

GoVoteTN is also available as a free phone app. 

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

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. 

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

“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.”

“…[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-elderly 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 re-registration for the next election.

“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 re-register to vote (see separate sidebar). Of course, if a person has died or been convicted of what is called a permanently disqualifying felony, they can’t re register. 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.

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Kathy Carlson
Kathy Carlson

Kathy Carlson is a veteran newspaper reporter and copy editor, with stints at the Nashville Banner and Tennessean. At the Tennessean, she worked on the police and business beats. She later wrote about employment law for M. Lee Smith Publishers. 1 For the past several years, she has been a freelance journalist. As a contributor to the Nashville Ledger, she has written about COVID-19, public health, education, voting during the pandemic, and a variety of governmental, legal and policy issues. Several ofher Ledger articles have received first-prize recognition 2 in Tennessee Press Association annual competitions. She will be working as a volunteer poll watcher with Organize Tennessee on Thursday.