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Ken Cuccinelli's voter purge in Virginia

Virginia has used a flawed list to purge nearly 40,000 voters. GOP Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli is defending the purge in court--while running for governor.
Virginia Voters
Virginia residents wait in line in the pre-dawn hours to vote in the 2012 U.S. presidential election at Nottoway Park in Vienna, Va., on Nov. 6, 2012.

Virginia used a flawed list to purge nearly 40,000 voters from the rolls just weeks before election day. County registrars say hundreds of eligible voters have been removed and complain they’ve been strong-armed into moving ahead too quickly. The effort was defended in court by a man who could benefit from it: Ken Cuccinelli, the state’s attorney general, who is also the Republican nominee for governor.

On Friday morning, a federal judge rejected a Democratic effort to stop the purge. An appeal is expected. 

Lawrence Haake III, the registrar of Chesterfield County and a Republican, told MSNBC he received a list from state election officials in August of around 2,200 voters in his county to be struck from the rolls. The state said the names had shown up in a database of voters registered in more than one state.

But when Haake tested a sample of around 1000 names, he found that 174 of them had registered in Virginia more recently than any other state, meaning they were eligible to vote. In an affidavit filed as part of the Democratic challenge to the purge, Haake called the list “clearly inaccurate and unreliable.”

Haake told the state he’d have to wait until January to give adequate attention to the purge and to ensure eligible voters were not removed. In response, the state election board threatened to sue, ordering the county to conduct the purge immediately, according to minutes of a county election board meeting reviewed by MSNBC.

“My bosses were strong-armed and threatened by the state,” Haake said.

Judy Brown, the Loudoun County registrar, told The Washington Post she’s received similar pressure from the state, and has found errors in the list she received. After sending letters to voters who appeared on the list, Brown said, her office heard back from some voters saying they still live in the state.

Many counties simply followed the state’s instructions, purging voters who couldn’t be affirmatively shown to be eligible. On Tuesday, the state Board of Elections said 38,870 names had been removed.

Ebony Wright, a 37-year-old paralegal, said in an affidavit that she recently received a letter from local officials telling her she could no longer cast a ballot in the state. Wright had registered to vote in 2008 after moving back to Virginia from South Carolina, and had voted several times since then. She called her local registration office and straightened things out. But others might not be as proactive.

“My understanding is that if I had not contacted the Office of Voter Registration to correct their error,” she wrote, “I would not have been permitted to submit a regular ballot in the upcoming November election.”

Cuccinelli’s office defended the purge in court, noting that more than 18,000 voters who appeared on the original list were ultimately left on the rolls after county registrars determined they were eligible. “The system worked,” the AG’s office concluded.

It’s Cuccinelli’s job as attorney general to argue for the state’s position, though he has declined to defend some state moves in the past. Cuccinelli’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment on the merits of the purge.

Virginia Democrats say that Cuccinelli shouldn't be involved in the purge case given that he is on the ballot next month. Because poor and minority voters tend to move more often, purges like Virginia’s tend to flag more Democrats than Republicans—meaning it could benefit Cuccinelli when he faces Democrat Terry McAuliffe next month. Democrats asked him to recuse himself, but he’s declined.

“That is a really dangerous conflict, where he has a substantial personal stake in the outcome of all of these decisions that are made, large and small, but especially in who’s qualified to vote on election day and who’s not,” Brian Coy, a spokesman for the Virginia Democratic Party, told MSNBC.

McAuliffe holds an eight-point lead over Cuccinelli, according to an NBC4/NBC News Marist poll released Thursday.