In a 5-4 decision on Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Ohio can resume its purge of infrequent voters from its rolls. The decision is expected to have a devastating effect on the state’s black voters and it could get even worse when the ruling is adopted by other states with midterm elections on the horizon.
Since 2011, Ohio, a bellwether state, has purged more than 2 million voters, a greater number than any other state, and black voters are two times more likely than whites to be kicked off voter rolls in the state’s largest counties, reports the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which filed an amicus brief with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights & Human Rights and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, a San Francisco-based law firm.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund blasted the ruling. “Today’s decision is an insult to our democracy,” said Samuel Spital, LDF’s director of litigation. “Federal law makes clear that no voter should be purged from the state’s voter roles unless there is reliable evidence that the voter has moved or is otherwise ineligible to vote.”
Spital was referring to the National Voter Registration Act of (NVRA) and the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA), enacted to prohibit state and local governments from voting rolls based solely on the fact that a person has not voted.
Under Ohio’s “Supplemental Process” the state mails a notice to individuals who haven’t voted in two years. If the person does not steps to confirm his or her vote status and has not voted in four years, the state removes the person from the voter roles, according to LDF.
It is not known how many people just throw the mailings into the garbage or don’t open their mail.
Ohio’s Supplemental Process is not a reasonable measure to maintain accurate voting rolls by identifying and removing ineligible voters, The League of Women Voters of Ohio wrote in an amicus brief. Only five outlier states remove voters from the rolls for not voting, but none are aggressive as Ohio, The League said in its filing. The other states are: Oklahoma, Georgia, Oregon, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
The Court’s decision came in Husted v A. Phillip Randolph Institute., which reversed a decision by the Sixth Court of Appeals. The court ruled that the law violated the Failure-to-Vote Clause—the clause that generally prohibits States from removing people from the rolls “by reason of [a] person’s failure to vote.” The case was filed by a voter who lived at the same address 16 years and was removed from Ohio’s voter rolls.
Republican Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted argued the purge of infrequent voters helps to clean up voter rolls. Ohio’s policy, with the blessing of the U.S. Supreme Court, now can be used as a model by other states, Husted said.
The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights said the ruling could disenfranchise millions of voters across the country.
Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the Court’s Conservative majority, said the Court was not deciding whether Ohio’s policy “is the ideal method for keeping its voting rolls up to date. The only question before us is whether it violates federal law. It does not.” Associate Justice Clarence Thomas filed a concurring opinion.
Justice Stephen Breyer filed a dissenting opinion, in which Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan joined. Justice Sotomayor filed a dissenting opinion, according to SCOTUSblog Coverage.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the ruling ignores the history of voter suppression which was why the NVRA was enacted.
“Congress enacted the NVRA against the backdrop of substantial efforts by states to disenfranchise low-income and minority voters, including programs that purged eligible voters from registration lists because they failed to vote in prior elections, Sotomayor said.
The voter purges have had a devastating effect on Ohio’s black voters. In 2015 alone more than 40,000 voters were purged from Cuyahoga County, Ohio, which has a significant racial minority population, creating an additional barrier for people of color to exercise their right to vote. Cleveland is the largest city in Cuyahoga County.
After today’s ruling voting rights advocates said they will develop a new strategy to block Ohio’s voter purges.