What does the recent Supreme Court decision mean for voting rights?

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court in Washington D.C.

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.

The Background

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.

SCOTUS’ Decision

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.

Screen Shot 2018-06-12 at 11.29.16 PM

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.

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13 replies

  1. It’s hard to believe how the voter fraud narrative continues unabated amongst the Republican talking heads. Actually it’s scary. The facts have been out there forever yet they refuse to acknowledge them. The only way is to keep calling them out, just like you’re doing and I will continue to do on a daily basis.

    • Yes, we need to do that. Which reminds me, I did a fairly in-depth thread on Twitter about the incidence of voter fraud (microscopic) but I should turn that into a post. Stay tuned!

      • Nice work, thanks very much for getting this out there, tokyosand!

        I visited the SCOTUSblog link and I’m still wondering how they could’ve ruled that a federal law is not violated. The article is from January 4, 2018… apparently the SCOTUSblog has not been updated to reflect the actual ruling? I want to read more when there IS more.

        Wording and interpretation, that’s what it boils down to. And about which side they want to win of course.

        It’s heartbreaking how we must deal with voter suppression tactics when the concept is so beautifully simple: each citizen is entitled to vote for the candidate of his or her choice, with free and easy access to the polls. That’s the American way. Republicans claim to be so concerned about ‘voter fraud’ when it’s virtually nonexistent. We know what they’re up to and as always, they’re simply un-american.

        My reply will turn into an angry rant if I keep going, so I will spare you all. What matters is that we must dust ourselves off and re-group. One ruling won’t be the end of us. Keep the faith, no matter what.

      • As I understand it, the ruling was that purging just because of lack of voting is not allowable, and purging just because of lack of response to a mailing is not allowable, but the combination is allowed.

  2. Absolutely. Please do.

  3. BTW, would you be ok if I reblogged this post on our blog?

  4. Reblogged this on On The Fence Voters and commented:
    This post is so important. Day after day it seems, the assault on our voting rights continues. Thank you so much for highlighting this latest SCOTUS decision. It has far-reaching implications. We know red-state governors and statehouses will take advantage of this ruling. Only by intense and massive civic engagement can we overcome it.

  5. Thanks Tokyosand for that follow-up. Yes, I see what you mean that it’s a combination of both ‘inactions’ of failing to vote and to return the pre-paid card. I found a great article which really explains it very nicely… it’s very well researched and very comprehensive… maybe you will find it informative…. here it is:


  6. Time to remember Thurgood Marshall.

  7. Republicans are making it as difficult as possible for low income people to vote because they know that the overwhelming majority that cohort tend to vote Democratic. I’ve contacted the Ohio Secretary of State’s Office to see if I could find out if anybody there is keeping track of how much this purging / re-registering of voters is costing Ohio taxpayers and am still waiting to here back from them.

    Stay tuned.

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