Fed Court: Ohio voter purge practices are illegal

More than 140,000 have been purged from Ohio's voter registration rolls by the state's voter purge practices, which a federal court today ruled are illegal.

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click to enlarge Cincinnati Nuns on the Bus gather outside the Hamilton County Board of Elections Sept. 13 to protest Ohio's voter purges - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Cincinnati Nuns on the Bus gather outside the Hamilton County Board of Elections Sept. 13 to protest Ohio's voter purges

The state of Ohio's procedures for purging inactive voters from its voter registration rolls are illegal, the U.S. Sixth District Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled today.

The ruling stems from a lawsuit against Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Ohio A. Philip Randolph Institute and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and later joined by the U.S. Justice Department challenging the state's practice of removing voters from the state's registration rolls if they do not vote once in four years and don't respond to an address verification mailing. A lower federal district court upheld that practice, but in a 2-1 decision, the 6th Circuit says it violates requirements for proper notification before deleting voters from registration rolls.

"...the notices did not adequately inform voters of the consequences of failing to respond to the notice," the decision reads. "Rather, the form indicated that the recipient’s registration “may” be canceled if he or she did not respond, re-register or vote in the next four years. Finally, the form failed to inform voters who had moved outside of Ohio on how they could remain eligible to vote in their new state."

The practice has caused controversy. Earlier this month, a group of voting rights activists and members of the faith leader group Cincinnati Nuns on the Bus gathered outside the Hamilton County Board of Elections to protest voter purges.

The nuns attended the board’s monthly meeting to ask for a moratorium on voter purges in Hamilton County, which they say adversely affect minorities and other marginalized people. The fight over voter registration purges is the latest in a line of high-profile battles over voting in Ohio.

“This is a serious, serious issue,” said Monica McGloin, part of the Dominican Sisters of Hope. “Women and men have been beaten, harassed and killed to guarantee us the right to vote. We believe it is morally unacceptable that Hamilton County has failed to do anything in its power to prevent the unwarranted purging of voters in the county.”

In April, the A. Philip Randolph Institute and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless filed a lawsuit against Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted over the practice. The groups are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and Demos, a liberal-leaning New York-based public policy group.

U.S. District Judge George Smith upheld Husted’s actions on June 29. The plaintiffs, who are represented by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the public policy group Demos, appealed to the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

The U.S. Justice Department joined the fray in July. In a 64-page pleading, it says Ohio’s purging of voters for inactivity violates both the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 and the Help America Vote Act of 2002. It asks the appellate court to reverse Smith’s decision.

“Ohio assumes that voters who have not cast a ballot in two years have moved and then sends these voters a confirmation notice to verify a change of address,” states the government’s friend-of-the-court brief. “If the voter does not receive or does not respond to the notice, and then does not vote in the following two federal elections, she is removed from the voter rolls. This practice violates the NVRA and HAVA because it triggers the removal process without reliable evidence that a voter has moved.”

The total number of Ohioans removed from voter rolls because of inactivity has not been tallied, but is nonetheless believed to be significant. Last month Reuters estimated that at least 144,000 voters were purged for that reason in the state’s three most populated counties — Cuyahoga, Franklin and Hamilton counties. The Hamilton County Board of Elections said 14,022 voters were removed in 2015 for not showing any activity in the past four years, including voting, verifying addresses and signing petitions. It purged 13,496 voters in 2014, 16,148 in 2013.

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