By: Sadie Peloquin
On September 6th of this year, Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose oversaw the removal of roughly 158,000 registrations from the state’s voter roll. This purge resulted from a controversial 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, handed down in June 2018, which upheld an Ohio voter-purge law that allowed the removal of inactive voters who failed to update their registrations if they moved. Though LaRose implemented a series of removal exemptions over the past year, many voting rights activists are concerned that the purge still resulted in the mistaken removal of active voters. This blog post will cover the 2018 Supreme Court case and will be followed by another that looks at how the voter purge itself was carried out over the last year.
Larry Harmon filed his challenge to the Ohio law when he discovered he had been purged from the voter roll in 2015, despite living at the same address for 16 years. In Ohio, voters can be removed from voter rolls by two processes. In the primary process, the state uses the US Postal Service’s database to determine if a person has moved. In a supplemental process, if a person does not vote for two years, the state mails them a prepaid card to the voters listed address. If the voter fails to mail that card back, confirming their address, and then does not vote for another four years, the state can remove them from the voter list. Harmon did not vote in the 2012 presidential election and discovered he was no longer a registered voter when he tried to vote on a ballot initiative about marijuana legalization a few years later. He also claims never to have received the prepaid card from the state, yet he was removed from the voter roll by the supplemental process.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote the majority opinion and was joined by Justices Roberts, Thomas, Kennedy, and Gorsuch. While the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) prohibits the removal of voters rolls for inactivity, the court held that because of a mandate within the NVRA to keep up voter rolls, inactivity can be used as a criterion for removal, as long as it is not the only reason. Since Ohio only removes voters if they also failed to respond to the confirmation card, the court found that it was acceptable to use inactivity as a purging criterion. For the majority, this case was a question of legal procedure rather than whether that procedure is efficient or effective. According to the majority, since the procedure did not violate federal statues, it was not the place of the court to further question Ohio’s voter removal and record keeping procedure.
The four liberal justices, however, did not feel constrained from questioning the efficacy of the voter purge procedure. The dissenting justices disagreed with the majority’s interpretation of the NVRA, stating that in fact, inactivity is not legal grounds for the removal of a registration, even if it is used in conjunction with other factors. They also argued that Ohio’s other removal criterion, failure to mail back a postcard, is highly inefficient. In 2012, 1.5 million cards were sent out and only 60,000 were sent back, which is a 4% response rate. Other evidence suggested that two-thirds of recipients mistook the cards for junk mail and threw the cards away. In a separate dissent, Justice Sotomayor highlighted evidence that Ohioans who live in majority minority and poorer communities are more likely to be purged from voter rolls than Ohioans who live in majority white and affluent districts. This evidence, according to the minority, illustrate the inefficiency of Ohio’s voter removal system which in their opinion, violates federal statute.
It will likely become clear in the next few months the effect the voter roll purge will have on Ohio’s elections. In November, though there are no state-wide or federal elections, there will be a wide variety of local level elections, such as for school board or city council. Measures taken by Secretary LaRose to correct problems with the purging process in the last year received bipartisan support and were praised by voting rights activists, but it remains to be seen how accurate Ohio’s government was able to be in maintaining