Ohio's Voter Purge is Headed to the Supreme Court

Ahead of last November’s election, tens of thousands of registered voters were removed from Ohio’s official voter list as part of the state’s routine voter purge. 

The move drew immediate ire from civil rights organizations, who managed to get the purge blocked prior to election day and convinced a federal district court to allow 7,515 voters who had already been removed to cast a ballot. Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted appealed the decision to the Supreme Court in February, arguing there was no illegality in Ohio’s process for removing registered voters from the state’s voter list. In May, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute during their next term.

The Issue: Ohio’s “Use it or Lose it” Purge Practice 

Across the country, state election officials routinely review voter rolls and remove individuals who have died, moved to another state, or have become otherwise ineligible to vote. In 1994, Ohio decided to take this process a step further. Known as the “supplemental process,” Ohio’s secretary of state office compiles a list of registered individuals who have gone two years without “voter activity” (i.e. updating personal information, casting a ballot). Such individuals are then sent a confirmation notice. If the notice is not returned and voter inactivity persists for four more years, the individual is struck from the state’s voter list. Husted maintains the practice is necessary to “maintain the integrity of voter rolls.” However, a coalition of Ohio-based civil rights groups counters that the practice violates two federal laws that bar states from removing individuals from voter lists for simply not voting: the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (“NVRA”) and the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (“HAVA”). Additionally, the coalition contends Ohio’s practice disparately disenfranchises Ohio’s most disadvantaged voters, with a disproportionate number of removed voters coming from low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. An analysis by NBC News seems to support the coalition’s case: “In central Cincinnati, where the poverty rate in the Clifton Heights neighborhood is double the city’s average, Hamilton County officials removed 27 percent of the voters. Six miles west, in the almost exclusively white suburban Cheviot neighborhood where the poverty rate is half that of the region, the county purged 9 percent of voters.”

A Growing Assault on Voting Rights

Ohio’s practice of penalizing voter inactivity with removal from the rolls fits into a disturbing pattern of attacks on voting rights around the country. Using the same pretense of maintaining electoral “integrity” cited by Husted, legislators in states such as North Carolina and Texas have enacted voter restrictions that, time and again, courts have deemed discriminatory. At the national level, President Trump persistently rails against the imaginary specter of widespread voter fraud and has appointed a notorious vote suppressor to look into the “problem,” while his the Department of Justice is led by a long-time opponent of the voting rights legislation he is now responsible for enforcing.