The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that Ohio was within its constitutional right to purge infrequent or absentee registered voters from its voter rolls. The court split on its usual 5-4 conservative-liberal lines, in what observers said was a disturbing blow to voting rights.
The case, Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, centered on Ohio’s practice of removing voters who have missed federal elections. Currently, those voters are notified by mail. If they don’t respond to the notice, and subsequently don’t vote within the coming four years, they are removed from the rolls.
In the court’s majority opinion, authored by Justice Samuel Alito, the case is framed as a question of whether the state is upholding its responsibility to keep accurate and up-to-date voter records in line with the 1993 National Voter Registration Act.
The dissent, authored by Justice Stephen Breyer, contextualizes the 1993 law stemming from decades of “selective purges” of potential voters through practices such as literacy tests and poll taxes. And now, Ohio’s removal practice—ostensibly designed to keep voter registration lists accurate—may end up doing considerably more harm than good. Breyer writes:
Very few registered voters move outside of their county of registration. But many registered voters fail to vote. Most registered voters who fail to vote also fail to respond to the State’s “last chance” notice. And the number of registered voters who both fail to vote and fail to respond to the “last chance” notice exceeds the number of registered voters who move outside of their county each year.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a seperately authored dissent, was even more pointed in her criticism, writing that the ruling will be particularly harmful when viewed “against the backdrop of substantial efforts by states to disenfranchise low-income and minority voters” which prompted the 1993 National Voter Registration Act in the first place.
In response to the ruling, the ACLU called it “a stark reminder that the Trump administration wants to turn back the clock on voting rights.”
Myrna Pérez, Director of the Voting Rights and Elections Project at the Brennan Center warned that Monday’s decision could have dire consequences outside of Ohio, as well.
“While this is disappointing, Ohio is one of only a few states that used failure to vote as a trigger for kicking someone off the rolls,” Pérez said in a press release. “Our worry is that other states will take this decision as a green light to implement more aggressive voter purges as the 2018 elections loom”