A Purge Too Far 

A Memphis pollster/analyst is troubled by the election commission's latest math.

Free and fair elections are the lifeblood of a democracy. Since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965, all courts, regardless of ideological bent, have frowned upon states and municipalities that erect barriers to free and transparent voting procedures. 

Moreover, the U.S. Department of Justice has paid closer attention to states (e.g., Mississippi) and cities which have had a history of questionable procedures suspected of an intent to suppress certain voters from freely exercising their constitutional right. Some cities have been on the Justice Department's watch list more than others. Memphis has been one of those cities. 

As far back as the 1974 election for the 9th Congressional District, boxes of votes disappeared, then reappeared, only after intense scrutiny and loud protests by African-American leaders. Had it not been for the vigilance of the Harold Ford campaign, the missing boxes of votes could well have resulted in the reelection of Congressman Dan Kuykendall.

In the 1991 Memphis mayor's race, more possible chicanery was quickly covered up when certain city leaders papered over the irregularities and declared Willie Herenton the winner over Dick Hackett. In the 2010 election, questions were raised about irregularities that could have affected the outcome of the sheriff's race.

Throughout this 40-year period, all election commissioners have routinely "purged" voters' names from voter registration rosters after those voters had failed to participate in at least two federal elections in a four-year period.

Such purging, when done legitimately and without bias, would usually result in reducing the roster's size by about 1 percent to 3 percent at most. 

In August 2008, data from the Shelby County Election Commission showed that there were 625,627 voters in the county. In the November general election, when Barack Obama and John McCain were in the presidential race, a total of 404,180 persons voted in Shelby County — a very healthy 64.6 percent voter turnout.

In November 2010, there were 602,647 registered voters in Shelby County, and in the November general elections for governor and other state and county offices that year, a total of 232,243 persons voted in Shelby County, a turnout of 38.5 percent.

Now comes the latest purging of the voter registration lists, which shows that Shelby County now has only 431,054 registered voters — a drop of 171,593 voters or a 28.5 percent decrease.

What exactly could have happened to cause such a sharp drop in the 18-month period since the November 2010 data? The latest voter registration data raises serious questions about the process used by the Shelby County Election Commission to produce these figures.

A 28 percent drop in voters is not rational and could not have happened due to random chance. If 404,180 persons voted in the November 2008 presidential race, that would have produced a 93.8 percent turnout with the latest voter data. Impossible. Did 171,000 Shelby County voters leave the county, die, or disappear, or is the commission's purging system that produced this irrational figure in error?

Certain groups routinely claim voter rigging or cheating by officials; most people ignore such claims. The latest salvo, which claimed the voting histories of nearly 500 registered voters were missing from the commission's records, the majority of them African-American, produced similar yawns by most people.

It is my view, based on our latest survey data, that this abnormally large, out-of-nowhere drop in registered voters must be resolved now, or we will have chaos at polling places come August and November. A drop of 171,000 previously registered voters in an 18-month period needs to be looked into by outside, disinterested experts — now.

Was all previous voter registration data showing over 600,000 registered voters inflated, or is the latest one showing 431,000 registered voters grossly inaccurate? Is the purge mere housekeeping or an attempt to suppress voter turnout? The drastic drop should lead Justice Department officials to send in experts who can get to the bottom of this. This is serious and needs to be treated as such.

That people may have cried wolf on alleged irregularities is not the issue. This time they may be on to something, and it better be resolved before the November general election, which is likely to produce a minimum turnout of some 360,000 voters. That would be a 58 percent or 81 percent voter turnout, depending on which election commission figures you choose to believe.

Berje Yacoubian is a pollster and political analyst. His Yacoubian Research organization has performed survey work for numerous candidates and organizations. See Politics, p. 14, for more data.

See also "Politics: Recount in Advance?".

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