In a 5-4 decision Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that Ohio’s practice of removing people from their list of registered voters when they go six years without casting a vote can continue. NBC News reports that there are at least a dozen other states who will likely follow suit due to the decision. Civil rights groups oppose the practice and believe it discourages minority turnout for elections and violates the National Voter Registration Act. Justice Samuel Alito disagreed with them and wrote in his opinion,
“It is undisputed that Ohio does not remove a registrant on change-of-residence grounds unless the registrant is sent and fails to mail back a return card and then fails to vote for an additional four years. We have no authority to second-guess Congress or to decide whether Ohio’s Supplemental Process 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.”
Here’s how Ohio’s process works. The state compares its list of registered voters to the list of people who reported a change of address to the U.S. Postal Service. People who have moved out of Ohio voting precincts are removed from their list of registered voters. Remaining voters who fail to vote in a two-year period are flagged and sent a notice that failure to vote within the next four years will result in their name being removed from Ohio’s list of registered voters, according to a report from Fox News. If they respond to the notice, they remain on the list. If they fail to respond to the notice and fail to vote for the next four years, they are pulled from the list. One problem identified with this process is the reliance on the postal service. Many who have been removed in the past claim they did not receive the required warning letter.
Larry Harmon is a veteran of the U.S. navy and a software engineer. When he showed up to vote in Ohio in 2015, he was told that he was no longer listed as a registered voter as a result of Ohio’s process. He says he never received the required letter of warning and joined a civil rights group in a lawsuit. The group won that suit, and a federal appeals court ruled that about 7,500 Ohio voters had been wrongfully purged from the list used in the 2016 election.
The National Voter Registration Act that civil rights groups feel makes Ohio’s process illegal says that voters can be removed only under certain circumstances. Committing a felony, death, requesting to be removed from voter rolls, moving out of the state’s voting districts, or becoming mentally incapacitated are valid reasons cited by the act. Because the intent of the notices sent to those in danger of being removed from voting rolls is to confirm their address, Justice Alito ruled that Ohio’s process does not violate the act.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor opposes Monday’s decision and said,
“Our democracy rests on the ability of all individuals, regardless of race, income, or status, to exercise their right to vote. Communities that are disproportionately affected by unnecessarily harsh registration laws should not tolerate efforts to marginalize their influence in the political process, nor should allies who recognize blatant unfairness stand idly by.”
Joining Justice Sotomayor in opposition were Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Elena Kagan.