March 17, 2018

US Supreme Court weighs legality of Ohio's voter removal procedure

13 January 2018, 01:07 | Rex Hubbard

A 2016 Reuters study found at least 144,000 people removed from the rolls in Ohio's three largest counties in recent years. ANN THOMPSON WVXU

A 2016 Reuters study found at least 144,000 people removed from the rolls in Ohio's three largest counties in recent years

"The reason they're purging them is they want to protect the voter roll from people that ... have moved and they're voting in the wrong district".

Sotomayor also said people have a "right not to vote".

When asked if the state could still update voter rolls while changing the process, Husted says this is the way OH has done it for more than 20 years.

During oral arguments Wednesday morning, several justices seemed more concerned with preserving the state's ability to remove people who had moved or died than they were with protecting eligible voters from being purged from the voter rolls. Democratic states have filed briefs supporting the challengers; Republican states have supported OH, indicating that if the OH law passes muster, more states might employ it.

As Ari Berman wrote in The Nation after the Court took the case, "From 2011 to 2016, OH purged 2 million voters from the rolls-1.2 million for infrequent voting-more than any other state". 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 repeatedly pressed the lawyer for opponents of the process, but had no questions for the lawyer representing Ohio.

A decision upholding Ohio's law would pave the way for more aggressive vote purging efforts in OH and other states, while the law's elimination would "send a strong signal that the federal government and the National Voter Registration Act place important limits on what states can and can't do with their voter rolls", says Dale Ho, who heads the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project. Seven states are using a process similar to Ohio's, so millions of voters around the country are potentially affected by the Court's decision. Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to suppress votes from minorities and poorer people who tend to vote for Democrats.

U.S. Supreme Court justices suggested they may give states broader latitude to purge their voting databases of people who might have moved, as the court heard arguments Wednesday in an OH case that could shape who gets to cast ballots in the November election. "There are dozens of other ways" for the state to determine whether someone has moved, Sotomayor emphasized, ranging from the U.S. Postal Service to juror and driver changes of address.

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The problem - according to Paul Smith, who is representing OH civil groups in the case - is that most people simply toss the notice "into the waste basket".

In Ohio, registered voters do not vote for two years are sent registration confirmation notices.

The American Civil Liberties Union charges that the state disenfranchises voters by canceling their registrations after they are inactive for six years. "Regardless, the failure to vote is the proximate cause of removal under the supplemental process, because non-voters are singled out for failing to vote, sent confirmation notices and then removed as a direct result of their failure to vote - without any affirmative evidence that they have changed residence or otherwise become ineligible".

Sotomayor noted that President Donald Trump's administration had switched sides in the case to support OH, breaking with a position held by previous Republican and Democratic administrations. As Justice Sotomayor noted to the Solicitor General, it is "quite unusual that your office would change its position so dramatically".

"It's important for us to keep up-to-date, accurate voter logs", said Aaron Sellers, a spokesman for the Franklin County Board of Elections in Ohio's largest county.

While the value of one's vote can be unconstitutionally diminished either by denying it to eligible voters, or by contaminating votes cast with ineligible votes, the Supreme Court needs to recognize that these purposes are not necessarily "dueling" or in conflict. The evidence shows, Smith responded, that most people throw such notices in the trash.

Francisco said there was a "public context" of confusion about how to interpret this part of the NVRA and that the administration interpreted the Help America Vote Act of 2002 as clearing up that ambiguity in favor of Ohio's policy. Breyer asked the attorney opposing the state's laws. The process has been in place for more than 20 years and has been administered the same way by both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state, says Husted. "We should be working to make voting easier, not more hard, for Americans that want to participate in the electoral process". But now that the case is in front of the Supreme Court, the Justice Department has filed papers saying THE OPPOSITE THING.

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