More on the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold how Ohio purges its voter rolls:
In a 5-4 decision in the closely watched voting-rights case, the high court overturned a lower court’s ruling that Ohio’s policy violated a 1993 federal law enacted to make it easier to register to vote. All four liberal justices dissented, and top Democrats said the decision will boost what they called Republican voter-suppression efforts. But other states may now follow Ohio’s lead.
Ohio’s contested voter purge stems from an inoffensive requirement in federal law that states have to make an effort to keep their voter rolls in good shape by removing people who have moved or died.
But Ohio pursues its goal more aggressively than most, relying on two things: voter inactivity over six years encompassing three federal elections and the failure to return a card, sent after the first missed election, asking people to confirm that they have not moved and continue to be eligible to vote.
Voters who return the card or show up to vote over the next four years after they receive it remain registered. If they do nothing, their names eventually fall off the list of registered voters.
The case hinged on a provision of the voter registration law that prohibits removing someone from the voting rolls “by reason of the person’s failure to vote.”
One representative of a civil rights group said the decision gave a “green light” to state efforts to “loosely purg[e] the registration rolls”. The Republican Ohio secretary of state said it was “a victory for electoral integrity”.
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.
Prof. Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine, predicted that a win for Ohio would escalate voting wars between the political parties.
"You’ll see more red states making it easier to drop people from the voter registration rolls," he said.
Whether Alito or Breyer had the stronger analysis of the interplay of the statutory provisions is unclear to me, but both opinions said little about the key political issue underlying the case, an issue Justice Sotomayor flagged in her separate dissent. After noting that Congress passed the Motor Voter law in light of a history of using restrictive registration and purge rules to suppress the vote, the Justice pointed to evidence showing that the process “has disproportionately affected minority, low-income, disabled, and veteran voters.” She noted evidence that in Hamilton County, Ohio, “African-American-majority neighborhoods in downtown Cincinnati had 10% of their voters removed due to inactivity” since 2012, as “compared to only 4% of voters in a suburban, majority-white neighborhood.” She also cited amicus briefs explaining “at length how low voter turnout rates, language-access problems, mail delivery issues, inflexible work schedules, and transportation issues, among other obstacles, make it more difficult for many minority, low-income, disabled, homeless, and veteran voters to cast a ballot or return a notice, rendering them particularly vulnerable to unwarranted removal under” Ohio’s process.
Justice Sotomayor pointed out that another provision of the Motor Voter law requires that any removal program “be uniform, nondiscriminatory, and in compliance with the Voting Rights Act,” and this part of the law provides a potential path forward. As more states enact laws like Ohio’s, it will become further apparent that these laws have discriminatory effects.