US Supreme Court weighs states' right to purge voter lists

11 January, 2018, 09:37 | Author: Brenda Erickson
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It's an issue embedded in the controversy before the Supreme Court today involving Ohio's practice of purging the voter-registration rolls of anyone who doesn't vote in two consecutive elections and then doesn't answer a piece of mail asking for an address confirmation (or doesn't subsequently vote in two additional elections).

Prof. Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California at Irvine, says if the court sides with OH, "you'll see more red states making it easier to drop people from the voter registration rolls, and it's going to continue what I call the voting wars between the parties".

OH has used voters' inactivity to trigger the removal process since 1994, although groups representing voters did not sue the Republican secretary of state, Jon Husted, until 2016.

"Which makes no sense, because lots and lots of people just choose not to vote", attorney Paul Smith said.

He said OH is violating the National Voter Registration Act, which specifies that voters can be purged from the rolls only if they ask, move, are convicted of a felony, become mentally incapacitated, or die. The court has a 5-4 conservative majority.

"Across the country right now, Americans are watching this case to find out whether or not the court will stand with the sacred right to vote", said Heather McGhee, president of Demos, a public policy organization that's opposed to the way OH maintains its voter rolls. They said deleting voters without more of a reason violates the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, better known as the motor-voter law.

"In 2015, hundreds of thousands of OH voters who had last voted in 2008 were removed from the voter registration rolls", the policy think tank Demos notes. OH makes it easy, with an online system through which almost a half-million voters have updated their registrations.

Lawyers for the organizations that challenged the policy said a particularly aggressive round of purging in 2015 triggered the lawsuit. In 2016, more than 7,500 voters showed up at the polls and found their names missing, forcing them to vote a provisional ballot, OH elections officials said.

"Joe Helle served six years as an Army infantryman and sergeant, including 15 months in Iraq and four months in Afghanistan a decade ago". Husted appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court. "It's only out of state folks who seem to have trouble with how to implement the laws in OH".

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Chief Justice John Roberts disagreed. "It's evidentiary, it's not ground for removal itself", Alito told the plaintiffs. Plus, she is the author of: "How to Find and Eliminate Illegal Votes". His local elections board said it has no record that Helle voted while he was away.

"Across the country, they are the people who vote the least", she said.

"I confess to doing that sometimes", Breyer said of putting mailings in the thrash. The challengers point to a provision in the federal law that bars states from removing anyone "by reason of the person's failure to vote".

Voting-rights activists say the notices only go out after someone doesn't vote, so lack of voting is still the cause of being erased.

Tellingly, four Republican commissioners from Trump's now-defunct commission are involved in legal briefs supporting OH in the case. That practice is called partisan gerrymandering.

Freda Levenson is the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

The case before the court centers on Republican-ruled OH where, under current law, state authorities can take away the right to vote from anyone who fails to show up at the polls for several years in a row.

Andre Washington, president of the A. Philip Randolph Institute in OH, echoed Sotomayor in a statement on Wednesday, arguing that "voter purges, like Ohio's supplemental process, disproportionately affect low income voters and voters of color who face countless barriers to casting their ballot".

The Trump administration filed a brief in support of the OH "use it or lose it" voting policy previous year in Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, which will be heard in the nation's top court on Wednesday.

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