Supreme Court Backs Ohio's Right to Purge Voting Rolls

Advocates fear court decision on Ohio could pave the way for more voter purges

Harmon and OH civil rights groups went to court, arguing that Ohio's practice conflicted with two federal voting laws.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the court's job was not to decide whether OH has adopted the "ideal method" for keeping rolls up to date, but only whether it complies with federal law.

The U.S. Supreme Court is seen after the court revived Ohio's contentious policy of purging infrequent voters from its registration rolls, overturning a lower court ruling that Ohio's policy violated the National Voter Registration Act, in Washington, U.S., June 11, 2018. He is joined by his four conservative colleagues. Courts around the country have mandated that states provide for specific days of early voting, out-of-precinct voting, same-day registration, pre-registration of minors, and straight ticket ballots - all the while barring states from requiring a photo ID to vote. Republicans say voter rolls need scrutiny to prevent fraud and promote ballot integrity, while Democrats insist the efforts are meant to reduce turnout from Democratic-leaning groups such as racial minorities.

Under the state law, voters who have not voted in two years are flagged and sent a confirmation notice.

So the state asks people who haven't voted in two years to confirm their eligibility.

A Reuters study in 2016 found that at least 144,000 people were removed from the voting rolls in recent years in Ohio's three largest counties, which are home to Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus.

"Congress enacted the NVRA against the backdrop of substantial efforts by states to disenfranchise low-income and minority voters, including programs that purged eligible voters from registration lists because they failed to vote in prior elections", Sotomayor wrote.

In other words, a voter doesn't even get on the list of people subject to a purge unless they fail to vote for two consecutive years. But not everyone who moves notifies the post office, the state said.

Justice Stephen Breyer, writing in dissent, said the 1993 law prohibits removing someone from the voting rolls "by reason of the person's failure to vote".

OH has used voters' inactivity to trigger the removal process since 1994, although groups representing voters did not sue the Republican secretary of state, Jon Husted, until 2016. In it, she said that friend-of-the-court briefs in the case had shown how the OH system "has disproportionately affected minority, low-income, disabled, and veteran voters". Dale Ho, director of the Voting Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) predicted dire results for voting rights.

"The Court errs in ignoring this history and distorting the statutory text ... ultimately sanctioning the very purging that Congress expressly sought to protect against", she added. "The only question before us", Alito made clear, is whether the practice "violates federal law".

Republican President Donald Trump's administration backed OH in the case, reversing a stance taken by Democratic former President Barack Obama's administration against the policy.

The case concerned Larry Harmon, a software engineer and Navy veteran who lives near Akron, Ohio.

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