U.S. Supreme Court upholds Ohio's voter purge practices

In a reversal of a lower federal court decision, the Supreme Court ruled that a practice removing inactive voters from voter registration rolls doesn't break federal law.

Jun 11, 2018 at 11:02 am
click to enlarge Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted - Provided
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted

A contentious Ohio election law that removes inactive voters from registration rolls is not against federal law, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today.

The 1993 state law, which was used to remove thousands from its voter registration rolls in recent elections, instructs the Ohio Secretary of State to remove voters if they have not voted in elections or responded to mailers about absentee ballots for six years. That's been controversial in Ohio, a key battleground state in national elections.

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 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.

The U.S. Justice Department joined the fray in 2016. 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 (National Voter Registration Act) and (Help America Vote Act) 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. Reuters also found a partisan element to those purges: Voters in Democratic neighborhoods in those counties were struck from the rolls at roughly twice the rate as voters in Republican areas.

The number of local voters purged over the past few years has been significant. 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 and 16,148 in 2013.

The American Civil Liberties Union reported in 2016 that at least 7,500 voters showed up at polling places believing they were registered to vote who were removed from the rolls by the law.

Opponents of the rule say it disproportionately impacts minorities and working people, who predominantly vote Democratic.Writing for the dissenting judges, Justice Sonia Sotomayor highlighted the historic role restrictive voting practices have played in disenfranchising minority voters.

"Today’s decision forces these communities and their allies to be even more proactive and vigilant in holding their States accountable and working to dismantle the obstacles they face in exercising the fundamental right to vote," she wrote.

A lower federal district court upheld the state's practice, but in a 2-1 decision in 2016, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals said it violates the requirements for proper notification before deleting voters from registration rolls.

The U.S. Supreme Court, however, disagreed in its 5-4 ruling today.

“The only question before us is whether it violates federal law,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority, noting that it's not up to the court to decide whether Ohio's practice is the best means by which to keep its voter registration records organized. “It does not.”