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Main » Supreme Court appears sympathetic to OH voter roll purge effort

Supreme Court appears sympathetic to OH voter roll purge effort

13 January 2018

Opponents of what has been called "voter roll purging" say that voters whose names are removed from the rolls with practically no warning, find themselves unable to vote. But is that a reasonable conclusion to draw, she asked, when it has a disproportionate effect on areas with large groups of minorities, poor people and the homeless? Only a handful of states use a process similar to Ohio's, but others could join in if the high court sides with the state.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer appeared to side with swing voter Anthony M. Kennedy during oral arguments Wednesday when he said OH had a legitimate reason for purging its voter rolls.

The American Civil Liberties Union of OH and the New York-based public advocacy group Demos sued Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted over the practice.

A handful of states use processes similar to the one used in OH, but civil rights groups say the state is particularly aggressive in purging people from the rolls. Today the court's more conservative justices seemed inclined to agree with the state - and could even pick up a sixth vote, from Justice Stephen Breyer.

Breyer aimed all of his questions at Smith, the challengers' lawyer.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled in September 2016 that Ohio's policy ran afoul of a 1993 law that prohibits states from striking registered voters "by reason of the person's failure to vote".

"We are confident that the Supreme Court will uphold the correct decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and will ultimately ensure that eligible OH voters may not be stricken from the rolls", she said.

Partisan fights over ballot access are being fought across the country.

January is shaping up to be a big month for Republican vote suppressors-and not in a good way for anyone who believes American politics benefit when more people vote. Republicans have argued that they are trying to promote ballot integrity and prevent voter fraud. Ohio's program removes people from its list of registered voters if they don't respond to a notification after four years or vote again in that period.

Daniel Tokaji, co-counsel in the case, counters that there are other legal mechanisms states can use to keep registration rolls clean, such as using the Postal Service's change-of-address system or checking registrations in other states.


As a direct result of Ohio's Supplemental Process, countless voters who remain fully eligible to vote are stripped of their most fundamental right. Helle showed up to vote that fall and found his name had been removed from the voter rolls.

Adding to the mix, the Trump administration reversed the position taken by the Obama administration and is now backing Ohio's method for purging voters. "Seems quite unusual that your office would change its position so dramatically", Sotomayor said.

The plaintiffs, represented by liberal advocacy group Demos and the American Civil Liberties Union, said purging has become a powerful tool for voter suppression. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled previous year that the process violates the national voting law.

A federal court just ended a almost four-decade-old ban on caging, and one of the GOP's notorious vote suppressors in North Carolina has been again nominated for a federal judgeship in that state. "The evidence we have in the record is that most people throw it in the wastebasket", Smith said.

Smith also conceded that OH could act if a nonforwardable notice were returned as undeliverable. OH said he was sent a notice, but he says he didn't get it.

Justice Breyer - what are states supposed to do? The justice said the case might come down to an "empirical question" about exactly what happens when the notices are mailed.

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. "We are fighting in every state to protect and expand the right to vote".

Ohio Solicitor Eric Murphy said Congress had adopted a "compromise" that "left a lot of room for states in our federal system to adopt the procedures that are best in that state". But a case coming before the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday explores whether some states are aggressively purging voter rolls in a way that disenfranchises thousands of voters.

Smith questioned why OH needed such an aggressive purging tactic at all, saying only 3 percent of Americans move each year and many take steps to update their address.

Supreme Court appears sympathetic to OH voter roll purge effort