On Tuesday, a federal court approved a settlement requiring Kentucky to clean up its voter rolls. This is the Trump Administration’s first purge case; DOJ intervened in a suit brought by the organization Judicial Watch, filing a complaint and a proposed consent decree. And as soon as DOJ stepped in, the Internet then did what the Internet does.
Some of the freakout was based on timing: the DOJ filings landed the day after the Supreme Court’s disappointing ruling in a purge case in Ohio — a case in which the DOJ switched its position. Some was because DOJ involvement in this case seems to have been the first tangible product of a DOJ information request sent to 44 states last June, on the same day the Pence-Kobach Commission tripped all over its own feet in asking every state for their voter files.
The Kobach Commission was a sham. I’m no fan of unwarranted and unreliable voter purges. And amidst some truly indefensible decisions in other areas, this DOJ has made a few indefensible calls in voting as well.
But deep breaths are in order in Kentucky. And if I want you to listen when I’m screaming, I figure it’s also on me to note when I’m not.
The simultaneous filing of complaint and consent decree (a longstanding DOJ approach) shows that the case was approved and negotiations were underway long before the SCOTUS Ohio decision. And while intervention by this DOJ in a case between Judicial Watch and the two Democratic statewide officials in Kentucky might warrant a raised eyebrow, the result shows few danger signs.
Both federal law and Kentucky law obligate the state to use reliable information — more reliable than the Ohio standard at issue in the Supreme Court case — to clean the rolls. But since 2009, state entities hadn’t been given the funding to clean up voters who had moved.
And while overvigorous purges are deeply troubling, so is complete abdication. Going too long without reasonable maintenance can lead to resource misallocations, and massive overcorrections, both of which hurt real eligible voters. Consider, for example, Brooklyn in early 2016 (where DOJ also intervened to foster good list hygiene). [Full disclosure: I was serving at the DOJ and involved in the Brooklyn intervention.]
So DOJ seems to have steered the Kentucky case to pry loose some money for what the state wasn’t funded to do all along. The agreement itself essentially just requires that Kentucky abide by federal law, using reliable sources to clean up the rolls (including updating the address of someone who moved within the county, which will help eligible voters at the polls). It specifically flags ERIC, a bipartisan program far more reliable than Kris Kobach’s Crosscheck system, and one that builds accuracy by obligating member states not only to clean ineligible voters off of the list, but also to affirmatively reach out to potential eligible voters who aren’t registered. And the agreement obligates Kentucky to make the coming maintenance public.
Those are all good things. In voting rights, as elsewhere, there’s plenty of reason to stay woke. And every Kentucky voter — heck, every American voter — should set a clock to double-check their voter registration two months before each election, just in case. But if you’re looking for evidence of the crumbling of the Republic, the settlement in Kentucky isn’t the place to start.