By Kevin Daley
A five-justice majority of the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Ohio’s voter purge system, finding the process by which the state removes inactive voters from the rolls does not violate federal law.
Although critics of Ohio’s practice charge the state’s true purpose is the removal of left-leaning voters from the registry, the high court found the process is consistent with federal law.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote the Court’s opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch. Justice Stephen Breyer led the liberal bloc in dissent, joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.
Ohio’s maintenance process is fairly straightforward. Voters who do not cast a ballot during a full federal election cycle (which runs two years) are sent a mailer confirming they are still residents of Ohio who wish to remain registered voters. If the mailer is not returned, and if the individual does not vote for the next four years, they are removed from state rolls.
The 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) requires all states to adopt policies providing for the removal of ineligible voters from state rolls. In his opinion for the Court, Alito claimed 24 million voter registrations are currently “invalid or significantly inaccurate,” according to a 2012 study from the Pew Center on the States. However, the NVRA forbids removal “by reason of the person’s failure to vote.”
Civil rights and good government groups challenged the Ohio procedure, arguing it targets and prunes voters on the basis of their inactivity. Nonvoting, the challengers point out, is used twice by the state’s process: once as the trigger for the mailer, and again as a condition for final removal. But Alito explained that the NVRA only prohibits the use of nonvoting as the direct cause for deregistration.
“We reject this argument because the Failure-to-Vote Clause, as originally enacted in the NVRA…, simply forbids the use of nonvoting as the sole criterion for removing a registrant, and Ohio does not use it that way,” he wrote.
Some 30 states filed amicus (or “friend-of-the-Court”) briefs in the dispute. A coalition of 12 Democratic states filed a brief arguing Ohio’s practices were unlawful, while 17 Republican states urged the high court to uphold them.
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