SCOTUS to hear Ohio voter purge case

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling by the state of Ohio that blocked the purge of voter registration rolls.

The state government was enforcing a law passed in the 1990s that removed the names of voters who failed to vote for six straight years.  The goal was to purge the dead and those who had moved out of state.

But liberal groups, including the ACLU, said the process was discriminatory because the purge affected minorities adversely.  They claimed it was a "voter suppression" technique and not an effort to prevent voter fraud.


Civil liberties advocates who challenged Ohio's policy said it illegally erased voters from registration rolls and unlawfully disenfranchised minorities and poor people who tend to back Democratic candidates. The justices will review a U.S. appeals court ruling that Ohio's policy ran afoul of a 1993 law called the National Voter Registration Act, which Congress passed to make it easier for Americans to register to vote.

A Reuters analysis last year found that in Ohio's three largest counties, which include Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus, voters were struck from the rolls in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods at roughly twice the rate as in Republican neighborhoods under the policy.

Ohio officials argued that canceling registrations for voters deemed inactive for six years helped keep voting rolls current and accurate, clearing out those who have moved away or died. In September 2016, ahead of the U.S. presidential election, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled that the policy was unlawful.

Democrats have accused Republicans of taking steps at the state level, including laws imposing new requirements on voters such as presenting certain types of government-issued identification, intended to suppress the vote of minorities, the poor and others who generally favor Democratic candidates.

The American Civil Liberties Union last year sued Ohio Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted, arguing that the state was violating the National Voter Registration Act, which prohibits states from striking registered voters "by reason of the person's failure to vote." The 6th Circuit agreed.

Under Ohio's policy, if registered voters miss voting for two years, they are sent registration confirmation notices. If they do not respond and do not vote over the following four years, they are removed from the rolls.

Husted has said Ohio's policy has been in place since the 1990s under both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state.

The suit said the policy led to the removal of tens of thousands of people from the voter rolls in 2015, including one of the lead plaintiffs, Larry Harmon, a software engineer and U.S. Navy veteran who was blocked from voting in a state marijuana initiative in 2015.

Ohio's dilemma points to a problem experienced by all 50 states: how to make voter registration rolls as accurate as possible.  Because administering the voter registration process is constitutionally left in the hands of state governments, there are many different ways that states attack the problem of duplicate registrations, dead voters, and voters who have moved to another congressional district within the state or out of state entirely.

Part of the problem is technical – linking computers to the records of county clerks to purge those citizens who have died is difficult and expensive.  And tracking those voters who move out of district or out of state is even harder.  It's been suggested that a national database of drivers be established that states could tap into in order to correct their records, but there is resistance from those who feel that it would give government the power to keep tabs on citizens.

Do the plaintiffs have a good argument?  Hardly.  The fact that minorities are affected more than others has nothing to do with their party affiliation and everything to do with the simple, incontrovertible fact that minorities do not vote in the same numbers as white Americans.  They may be registered via the "motor voter" laws, but getting them to go to the polls is something entirely different.

But just because they haven't voted, should their names be purged from the rolls?  Here, the ACLU is on a little firmer ground.  If the goal is to make voting as easy as possible while maintaining the integrity of the process, once someone is registered and he maintains his current residence and does not have to serve time in prison, there should be no reason to purge him.  One of the plaintiffs in this case, a Navy veteran, obviously felt strongly enough about the marijuana initiative to go and vote, despite the fact that he had not voted before.  Should he be allowed to register his opinion, or should his passion be discouraged? 

But the ACLU's main argument is specious.  There are other reasons why minorities are affected by this law besides partisan maneuvering or racism.  The justices  should recognize that in their opinion.

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