Thursday, 18 January, 2018

Supreme Court Appears Divided Over Aggressive Ohio Voter Purge Process

California asks Supreme Court to tell Ohio ‘Do as I say not as I Getty Images
Jerome Frank | 13 January, 2018, 01:05

There are also concerns about the disparate impact of disenfranchisement, an issue that Justice Sonia Sotomayor spent several minutes on during the state of Ohio's oral arguments.

The justices will hear arguments in Republican-governed Ohio's appeal of a lower court ruling that blocked its policy of erasing from voter registration lists people who do not regularly cast a ballot.

OH is being backed in the case by 17 other mostly Republican states and the Trump administration.

"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. Kennedy often swings a decision that splits the conservative and liberal-leaning justices.

Breyer repeatedly pressed the lawyer for opponents of the process, but had no questions for the lawyer representing Ohio. Through the 1993 "Motor Voter" law and the 2002 Help America Vote Act, Congress made it easier for Americans to register to vote, and prohibited states from striking them from the rolls just because they have not actually voted.

"We are confident that the Supreme Court will uphold the correct decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and will ultimately ensure that eligible OH voters may not be stricken from the rolls", she said.

The case has taken on added importance because the parties have squared off over ballot access across the country. Politically, the issue of voter list management has become a partisan one, with Republicans claiming that threats of voter fraud necessitate more stringent cleaning of voter rolls, while Democrats argue that such tactics serve to suppress voter participation.

Under the OH process, voters who haven't cast a ballot in two years get a notice from the state asking them to verify they are eligible to vote.

"Not a question of what we think would be the ideal system for achieving the result of removing people who have moved from the voter lists", Alito said.

The central question in the OH case is whether sending the initial mailing to people who don't vote and then removing them if they fail to respond and then don't vote for four more years amounts to removing people because they don't vote. If they do, or if they show up to vote over the next four years, voters remain registered.

Ohio's mailed Confirmation Notice, which explains the steps voters must take to avoid removal from the rolls, is, of course, generally only provided in English.

While it's not unusual for department positions to change over time or with different administrations, flipping sides in the middle of a case is highly unusual. There is also substantial evidence that the state purges minority voters and those from Democratic-leaning neighborhoods at disproportionately high rates.

Civil rights groups contend that a decision for OH would have widespread implications because it would fuel a broader effort to make it more hard and costly to vote.

A divided federal appeals court blocked the OH procedure and let about 7,500 state residents cast ballots in 2016, even though they'd previously been struck from the list of eligible voters.

Smith said 20 percent of people sent back the forms, and the Post Office returned 10 percent as undeliverable. OH said he was sent a notice, but he says he didn't get it. At one point, Gore mentions that he "ran into" a mutual acquaintance who "mentioned this case", but the name of that person is redacted.

"Your argument really turns on the adequacy of the notice", Roberts said.

Republican Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted noted that the state's policy has been in place since the 1990s under Republican and Democratic secretaries of state.

In addition to OH, six U.S. states have drawn up plans to purge their voter lists: Georgia, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Clearly, this provision will be debated at the Supreme Court when this OH case is heard this week.

In oral arguments, the tension between the practical effect of how OH purges its rolls and the more abstract statutory questions at play was on display.

Harmon, who does not remember receiving a notice, brought his challenge to Ohio's scheme with the nonprofit A. Philip Randolph Institute and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, alleging violations of the National Voter Registration Act.

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