Last June, in a 5-4 split, the US Supreme Court upheld a controversial voting law in Ohio that allows the state to purge voters from its registration rolls. The law was challenged in court by a software engineer and Navy veteran named Larry Harmon, who opted out of voting in the 2012 election, but realized when he went to cast his ballot in a marijuana legalization referendum three years later that he had been purged for inactivity in the time since. More than 200,000 people were reportedly removed from the Ohio voter rolls in 2015 alone.
VICE talked to Joe Helle, a 32-year-old Ohioan who experienced his own bout of disenfranchisement from Ohio’s law when he went to vote in 2011. Helle is now running for the Ohio House of Representatives. This is his story in his own words, lightly edited for length and clarity.
I was born and raised in Ohio. I registered to vote in 2004 at the age of 18. Later that year I joined the army, where I ended up serving just over six years. I served as a paratrooper, first out at Fort Richardson in Alaska, and then was deployed during the surge in Iraq in 2006 to almost the end of 2007. Then I did a tour in Afghanistan in 2009.
I tried one time to vote absentee from Iraq, but I imagine my ballot didn’t make it on time. It’s not exactly easy to hit the ballot box when you’re 4,000 miles away, or 10,000 miles away, and certainly, during Iraq, we were busy all the time.
So I was looking forward to voting when I got home at the end of 2010, and I went to vote in a special election in August of 2011. It was about whether to impose a new local school levy.
Yet when I tried to vote, the poll workers told me they couldn’t find my name, and to cast a ballot provisionally. So I did. In November, I tried to vote in the general election, and the poll workers told me again that they couldn’t find my name and to go to Board of Elections to check on why. I did right away, and that’s when I found out I had been purged some time before, while I was still on active duty.
I cried when I found out. I couldn’t believe my right to vote had been stripped away. It also meant my August vote hadn’t counted. After that, I went ahead and re-registered that day, but Ohio doesn’t allow same-day registration, so I couldn’t vote until 2012.
The way Ohio’s system works is if you haven’t voted in two years they essentially send what looks like junk mail, a postcard that looks like political mail. And if we fail to mail back that postcard confirming our address and we don’t vote for another two federal election cycles after that, then we’re removed from the rolls. It’s called a “use-it-or-lose-it” law. For most folks that I talk to, they say they get this postcard thing and throw it away. Yes, people need to pay closer attention to their mail, but the burden of proof shouldn’t be on the voter. There’s no due diligence on behalf of the state—they never try to call you, or email you. There are other ways to verify that we’re still residents of the state, and living in the same address.
Things have changed a lot since 2011. Back when I was barred from casting my ballot, purging voters just wasn’t an issue anyone cared about. One local newspaper picked up my story and wrote an article about it. I called a local legislator. I called my secretary of state’s office. But I was basically blown off by everyone.
In 2017, though, when the A. Philip Randolph Institute filed its Harmon case, a lot more people started paying attention. I first got involved when I saw a Facebook post from Progress Ohio [an advocacy group] about voter purges. I commented on the post and I said, “Hey I’m a veteran and I was purged in 2011.” Then more people wanted to hear my story, and it’s kind of cascaded since then.
This past January, I traveled to Washington, DC, for the Supreme Court oral arguments. While there, as a spur of the moment thing I confronted Jon Husted, the Republican Secretary of State who has overseen the purges since 2011. I was an army guy—I’m not afraid to call someone out. I believe what he is doing, whether it’s against me or anybody else, is absolutely deplorable. That Husted will defend and support the nonsense of purging voters is an incredible disservice.
So yes, I spoke out about it. I faced the guy. He is responsible. People can say [Democrat] Jennifer Brunner was responsible for my specific case, but Jon Husted came into office in January 2011, and he could have put a stop to it. We need people with gumption to stand up to these kinds of folks. After I confronted him, he ran scared; he couldn’t give me a good reason for why he did what he did.
It’s unfortunate that the case was lost. I think the Supreme Court got that one wrong. But there’s also hope in Ohio: Kathleen Clyde [a Democrat] is running for Secretary of State—she and I end up at a lot of the same campaign events talking about this issue. We both agree we should be increasing the availability of voting, not taking it away.
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