Supreme Court decides case on purging voter registration rolls

GettyImages-903324476

GettyImages-903324476

The court's conservative majority held that this practice does not violate federal voting rights laws.

Under the disputed procedure, OH mails notices to people who haven't voted in two years, asking them to confirm that they still live at that address.

Unlike many voting cases that come before the court, Monday's case centered not on grand constitutional principles but on interpreting seemingly contradictory directives of federal law.

As the New York Times explains, federal law forbids removing people from registration rolls because of a failure to vote, but it gives state officials leeway to drop voters who they think have moved. "Registrants who have not responded to a notice and who have not voted in 2 consecutive general elections for Federal office shall be removed from the official list of eligible voters", according to the NVRA, "except that no registrant may be removed exclusively by reason of a failure to vote".

OH state officials argued that the practice is an attempt to keep the list of registered voters up to date, removing people, for example, who have moved to another state.

In a 5-to-4 opinion that pitted the conservative majority against the more liberal justices, the high court upheld Ohio's "use it or lose it" policy of cleaning up its voter rolls, known as the supplemental process.

OH has sent more than 3 million notices of address confirmation since 2011, when Husted became Secretary of State. A handful of other states also use voters' inactivity to trigger a process that could lead to their removal from the voting rolls.

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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.

In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled OH could continue to remove individuals from voter rolls if they had not voted in two federal elections and have not responded to a confirmation notice or update their registration. According to briefs in the case, Harmon "expressed his dissatisfaction with the candidates by exercising his right not to vote".

Steve Vladeck, CNN Supreme Court analyst and professor at the University of Texas School of Law, said other states could follow Ohio's lead.

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". Alito said OH skirts that prohibition by sending voters the postcard, to which they can respond before their registrations are canceled. "And in doing this, OH simply follows federal law". "It does not", Justice Alito wrote. When he showed up at the polls in 2015 he was told his registration had been canceled.

So it might be off to the races for a new round of voter suppression, all justified by a yet-to-be-documented risk of voter fraud, and a new burden for beleaguered voting-rights activists who must now focus on educating vulnerable communities on how to avoid or mitigate purges. The majority concluded that the practice under challenge - which cancels the registration of voters who do not go to the polls and who don't respond to a notice - does not violate the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) and the Help America Vote Act.

After registered voters miss one federal general election, they receive a mailed notification acting to confirm their address.

No other Justice joined Thomas' opinion, perhaps because the question it raised was not necessary to uphold Ohio's rule. If they do not respond and do not vote over the following four years, they are purged. "It does not." The court's four more liberal justices dissented.

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