Supreme Court gives OK to states to clean voting rolls

Clay Curtis
June 11, 2018

Samuel Alito delivered the opinion for the conservative majority in Husted v. Philip Randolph Institute that gave the state of OH - famed for its highly partisan election administration regime - great leeway in designing a purge of voter rolls after narrowly construing some confusing language in the federal motor-voter legislation (officially the National Voter Registration Act of 1993) that was created to expand voter participation.

After registered voters miss one federal general election, they receive a mailed notification acting to confirm their address. Voters who then fail to respond to the notice and vote within the next two years are removed from the rolls. And in a scathing separate dissent, Justice Sotomayor reminded the Court that it was perverting the entire goal of the motor-voter law by construing it as permissive toward voter purges - particularly those which, like Ohio's, disproportionately affects minority voters, which the same law prohibits.

A Reuters study in 2016 found that at least 144,000 people were removed from the voting rolls in recent years in Ohio's three largest counties, which are home to Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus.

The challengers criticized what they called Ohio's "use it or lose it" policy that they said violated registered voters' right to choose when to vote, noting that some voters do not cast a ballot when they do not support any of the candidates running. "It does not", Justice Alito wrote. Under Ohio's voter purge regime, 1 millions voters, or 13 percent of those sent the confirmation cards, did not return them.

Justice Stephen Breyer, writing in dissent, said the 1993 law prohibits removing someone from the voting rolls "by reason of the person's failure to vote".

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The court's four liberal justices dissented from the decision.

She argued that the ruling from the conservative justices "entirely ignores the history of voter suppression against which the NVRA was enacted and upholds a program that appears to further the very disenfranchisement of minority and low-income voters that Congress set out to eradicate".

"With the midterm election season now underway, the court's ruling demands heightened levels of vigilance as we anticipate that officials will read this ruling as a green light for loosely purging the registration rolls in their community", said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

"We are now only 5 months from our next federal election and any rush now to remove a backlog of up to 589,000 voters that he has marked for purging will be extremely disruptive and unfair to OH voters", Clyde wrote.

Husted called the decision "a victory for electoral integrity".

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