The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) just ruled on a case involving Ohio’s method for purging voters from the registration rolls. Here’s what you need to know, and what you can do going forward.
Back in 2015, U.S. Navy veteran Larry Harmon went to the polls to vote in the Ohio state elections but found he wasn’t on the list of registered voters. He found out that Ohio was purging voters who hadn’t voted in previous elections, so with the help of the civil rights group A. Philip Randolph Institute, he sued Ohio’s secretary of state, Jon Husted.
The name of the SCOTUS case is Husted v. A Philip Randolph Institute.
What Ohio was doing was sending a notice to voters who had skipped a federal election, asking them to confirm their address. If the voter threw out the notice as junk mail, which up to 80% did, Ohio started the purge process. Voters were then essentially on a “watch list” and if they didn’t vote in the next four years, they were taken off the rolls.
What the Case is About
Harmon/Randolph Institute challenged Ohio’s practice of purging voters, arguing that federal law states that once a voter becomes registered, they cannot be removed from the rolls unless they become ineligible to vote. It is one of the guiding principles of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA). And indeed, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, and ruled that Ohio’s purge procedure violated federal law.
On the flip side, Ohio argued that they have a right to ask voters to confirm their eligibility and that federal law provides for ways to clean up voter rolls.
You can read more about the arguments on both sides at the super helpful SCOTUSblog.
The DOJ’s Position
It is the Department of Justice’s job to enforce the NVRA, which it has done in both Democratic and Republican administrations. In fact, they’ve enforced this rule many times and stopped various states from purging voters like Ohio did. An alarming twist to this case is that, most unusually, in the middle of the case, the DOJ switched its position. Under Obama, they were on Harmon’s side. Under Trump, DOJ switched to support Ohio’s position.
On Monday, we learned that the Supreme Court upheld Ohio’s procedure for purging inactive voters in a 5-4 decision. From Reuters:
Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said the court was not deciding whether Ohio’s policy “is the ideal method for keeping its voting rolls up to date. The only question before us is whether it violates federal law. It does not.”
In a dissenting opinion, Sotomayor said the ruling “ignores the history of voter suppression against which the NVRA was enacted and upholds a program that appears to further the very disenfranchisement of minority and low-income voters that Congress set out to eradicate.”
Once More, For the People in the Back
The Republicans claim that this voter purge tactic is all about preventing voter fraud. They’ve been parroting the same talking points for so long, they don’t even see the truth. Which is, there is no widespread voter fraud in this country. One comprehensive Washington Post study, which mirrored the findings of other studies, found that out of more than 1 billion ballots cast between 2000-2014, there were only 31 credible instances of voter impersonation fraud. For more, read: Debunking the Voter Fraud Myth
Likely Implications of this Decision
The Republicans have aggressively sought to implement a variety of voter suppression tactics, and voting rights experts agree that there is a high likelihood that Republican-controlled states, or states with a Republican serving as its Secretary of State, will try to implement Ohio-style voter purges.
Other states that already have similar purge processes: Oklahoma, Georgia, Montana, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia.
Although Democrats have larger numbers of citizens registered than Republicans, Democrats also miss more elections than Republicans. A statistic on PoliticalWire stated that of those that missed the past 3 federal elections, 36% were Democrats while only 18% were Republicans.
Reminder: Please vote in every election! Not just presidential elections but midterms, too!
These laws also disproportionately target low-income Americans, minority voters, and those serving in the military.
So Now What?
As disappointing as this decision is, there are actions we can take.
1) Check your voter registration regularly. Set a recurring reminder on your calendar. It takes just seconds to check at IWillVote.
2) Do everything you can to get people to vote on election days. Ask your co-worker, “It’s election day. Will you be voting?” Email your family or friends and remind them it is an election day. Get involved with canvassing and phone banking efforts. These small, human-to-human conversations can make a world of difference.
3) Keep an eye on your state legislature and/or secretary of state as they either try to pass legislation or adopt administrative rules to purge voters. Be in the know, and get loud when you see it.