The Supreme Court on Monday opened the door for states to remove potentially millions of Americans from their election rolls when the justices upheld Ohio’s practice of purging inactive voters from its registries.
The five justices who sided with Ohio, led by Justice Samuel Alito, concluded that the practice was necessary to keep the rolls up to date by removing those who have died or moved away. Analyses of Ohio county voter rolls, however, suggest that the practice disproportionately impacts and disenfranchises homeless residents, veterans, Libertarians, and low-income people who work multiple jobs.
“Today’s decision is a blow, not just to Ohio voters but to the democratic process. Giving the green light to Ohio’s purge process could have a ripple effect across the entire country,” said Freda Levenson, legal director at the ACLU of Ohio, in a statement.
Since 1994, anyone who didn’t vote in a two-year period in Ohio was flagged for potential removal from the rolls of registered voters, even if they were still technically eligible to vote. The local boards of elections send those individuals a postcard asking them to confirm their address. If they don’t return the postcard, or if they fail to vote in a federal election in the next four years, they’re automatically purged from the rolls.
Plaintiffs in the case, Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, argued the rules are needlessly harsh and do not account for life’s complexities, like being unable to get to the ballot box due to competing demands of work and family, homelessness, or the transience of the active-duty military lifestyle. The A. Philip Randolph Institute, a black trade unionist organization, sued Ohio’s Republican secretary of state Jon Husted on the grounds that the rules violated two key federal voting laws that aimed to enhance integrity, accuracy, and participation in the electoral process, including the 1993 National Voter Registration Act.
More than 2 million voters were purged from the rolls from 2011 to 2016, according to Husted. Given that there are approximately 7.7 million eligible voters in the entire state, 2 million isn’t an insignificant number.
Justice Stephen Breyer led the dissent, which echoed civil rights advocates’ concerns that Ohio’s rules are too strict.
“Communities that are disproportionately affected by unnecessarily harsh registration laws should not tolerate efforts to marginalize their influence in the political process, nor should allies who recognize blatant unfairness stand idly by,” Breyer wrote. “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.”
The ruling comes as Republicans and Democrats continue to butt heads over voting rights across the country. Many Republicans, echoed by the Trump Administration, contend that rampant voter fraud plagues our election system, and that stricter regulation is necessary to preserve the integrity of American democratic processes. Elections experts, however, have found no evidence to support that idea, and Democrats argue Republicans are using the myth to consolidate power by making it harder for minority and low-income people to vote.
Cover image: A voter casts his ballot into an electronic voting machine at a polling station located in the Taft Information Technology High School, Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)