Supreme Court al­lows Ohio, other state purges of vot­ers

Yuma Sun - - OBITUARIES -

WASH­ING­TON — States can tar­get peo­ple who haven’t cast bal­lots in a while in ef­forts to purge their vot­ing rolls, the Supreme Court ruled Mon­day in a case that has drawn wide at­ten­tion amid stark par­ti­san di­vi­sions and the ap­proach of the 2018 elec­tions.

By a 5-4 vote that split the con­ser­va­tive and lib­eral jus­tices, the court re­jected ar­gu­ments in a case from Ohio that the prac­tice vi­o­lates a fed­eral law in­tended to in­crease the ranks of reg­is­tered vot­ers. A hand­ful of other states also use vot­ers’ in­ac­tiv­ity to trig­ger a process that could lead to their removal from the vot­ing rolls.

Justice Samuel Al­ito said for the court that Ohio is com­ply­ing with the 1993 Na­tional Voter Reg­is­tra­tion Act. He was joined by his four con­ser­va­tive col­leagues.

The four lib­eral jus­tices dis­sented.

Par­ti­san fights over bal­lot ac­cess are be­ing fought across the coun­try. Democrats have ac­cused Repub­li­cans of try­ing to sup­press votes from mi­nori­ties and poorer peo­ple who tend to vote for Democrats. Repub­li­cans have ar­gued that they are try­ing to pro­mote bal­lot in­tegrity and pre­vent voter fraud.

Un­der Ohio rules, reg­is­tered vot­ers who fail to vote in a two-year pe­riod are tar­geted for even­tual removal from reg­is­tra­tion rolls, even if they haven’t moved and re­main el­i­gi­ble. The state said it only uses the dis­puted process af­ter first comparing its voter lists with a U.S. postal service list of peo­ple who have re­ported a change of ad­dress. But not ev­ery­one who moves no­ti­fies the post office, the state said.

So the state asks peo­ple who haven’t voted in two years to con­firm their el­i­gi­bil­ity. If they do, or if they show up to vote over the next four years, vot­ers re­main reg­is­tered. If they do noth­ing, their names even­tu­ally fall off the list of reg­is­tered vot­ers.

“Com­bined with the two years of non­vot­ing be­fore no­tice is sent, that makes a to­tal of six years of non­vot­ing be­fore removal,” Al­ito wrote.

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. In my view, Ohio’s pro­gram does just that.”

In a sep­a­rate dis­sent, Justice So­nia So­tomayor said Congress en­acted the voter reg­is­tra­tion law “against the back­drop of sub­stan­tial ef­forts by states to dis­en­fran­chise low-in­come and mi­nor­ity vot­ers.” The court’s de­ci­sion es­sen­tially en­dorses “the very purg­ing that Congress ex­pressly sought to pro­tect against,” So­tomayor wrote.

Civil rights groups said the court should be fo­cused on mak­ing it eas­ier for peo­ple to vote, not al­low­ing states to put up road­blocks to cast­ing bal­lots.

“With the midterm elec­tion sea­son now un­der­way, the court’s rul­ing de­mands height­ened lev­els of vig­i­lance as we an­tic­i­pate that of­fi­cials will read this rul­ing as a green light for loosely purg­ing the reg­is­tra­tion rolls in their com­mu­nity,” said Kris­ten Clarke, pres­i­dent and ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Lawyers’ Com­mit­tee for Civil Rights Un­der Law.

Ohio 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. As part of the law­suit, a judge last year or­dered the state to count 7,515 bal­lots cast by peo­ple whose names had been re­moved from the voter rolls.

Husted called the de­ci­sion “a vic­tory for elec­toral in­tegrity.” He is run­ning for lieu­tenant gover­nor this Novem­ber on the Repub­li­can ticket headed by Mike DeWine, the cur­rent at­tor­ney gen­eral.

Adding to the ten­sion in the case, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion re­versed the po­si­tion taken by the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion and backed Ohio’s method for purg­ing vot­ers.

Last week, Pres­i­dent Donald Trump said he would nom­i­nate Eric Mur­phy, the Ohio lawyer who ar­gued the case on the state’s be­half, to a seat on the Cincin­nati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Ap­peals. A three-judge panel on that court had ruled 2-1 that Ohio’s prac­tice was il­le­gal.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

IN THIS JAN. 10 FILE PHOTO, peo­ple rally out­side of the Supreme Court in op­po­si­tion to Ohio’s voter roll purges in Wash­ing­ton. The Supreme Court is al­low­ing Ohio to clean up its vot­ing rolls by tar­get­ing peo­ple who haven’t cast bal­lots in a while. The...

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