U.S. Supreme Court Rules Ohio Can Purge Inactive Voters From Rolls

Voting rights activists rallied to oppose voter roll purges as the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in the Husted v. OH claims that its practices just keep voter rolls up to date, and are consistent with federal law; the challengers argue that the state's purges violate federal law and risk disenfranchising eligible voters.

OH takes a relatively aggressive approach to purging its rolls of voters, and the Supreme Court on Monday declared it's perfectly legal to do so.

In a 5-4 decision, the nation's highest court overturned a ruling by a lower court that the practice was a violation of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).

Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor wrote dissents, with Justice Sotomayor accusing the majority of trampling on the right to vote, saying she feared it would be used against minorities. The court's narrow ruling is likely to have dramatic knock-on affects across the country. Republicans have argued that they are trying to promote ballot integrity and prevent voter fraud. The Ohio practice at issue in this case, the majority concluded, "follows subsection (d) to the letter": "It is undisputed that Ohio does not remove a registrant on change-of-residence grounds unless the registrant is sent and fails to mail back a return card and then fails to vote for an additional four years". They get a mailed notification asking them to confirm their eligibility. "Registrants who have not responded to a notice and who have not voted in 2 consecutive general elections for Federal office shall be removed from the official list of eligible voters", according to the NVRA, "except that no registrant may be removed exclusively by reason of a failure to vote". If they do not respond to the notice, and if they fail to vote for another two years, their registrations are canceled. If they do nothing, their names eventually fall off the list of registered voters.

OH said it only uses the process after first comparing its voter lists with U.S. Postal Service lists of changed addresses, but not everyone who moves notifies the post office. "And Justice Sotomayer has not pointed to any evidence in the record that OH instituted or has carried out its program with discriminatory intent".

Ohio's policy would have barred more than 7,500 people from voting in the 2016 presidential election had the lower court not blocked it, according to court papers.

"Democracy suffers when laws make it harder for U.S. Citizens to vote".

"The court errs in ignoring this history and distorting the statutory text to arrive at a conclusion that not only is contrary to the plain language of the NVRA but also contradicts the essential purposes of the statute, ultimately sanctioning the very purging that Congress expressly sought to protect against", she wrote.

Republican President Donald Trump's administration backed OH in the case, reversing a stance taken by Democratic former President Barack Obama's administration against the policy.

The case came about when Larry Harmon challenged the process arguing that he was removed from the rolls even though he had not moved, but rather had opted not to vote in 2009 and 2010. A three-judge panel on that court had ruled 2-1 that Ohio's practice was illegal.

  • Rogelio Becker