In a 5-4 decision the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) has upheld Ohio’s purge of voting records. The decision will likely have implications for states across the nation in advance of the 2018 mid-term elections.
It also could disenfranchise minority and low-income voters, leading to voter suppression.
The court’s ruling upheld Ohio’s practice of kicking people off the voting rolls if they’ve skipped a few elections and haven’t verified their address. States certainly have the right to ensure the integrity of their voting rolls.
However, many have taken an aggressive stance on doing so precisely to suppress minority voting, in opposition to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. That law outlawed legal barriers preventing African American voters from participating in state and local elections.
Why the Ruling Matters
Removing registered voters from the rolls simply because they haven’t voted in a few years and haven’t confirmed their address will lead to potentially millions of mostly poor and minority voters being removed from the voting rolls. They may not even find out about it until they show up to vote and are told they’re no longer registered. Thus, they will be excluded from participating fully in a right granted to U.S. citizens.
Poor and minority voters often report myriad reasons for not taking part in elections, including feeling disenfranchised, difficulty getting to the polls and work schedules that conflict with voting hours.
States are supposed to notify voters that they need to verify their addresses before removing them from the rolls. If a voter misses that notification, they may not realize that they’re no longer on the rolls until they can’t vote on Election Day.
Flawed Data Kicks Legal Voters Off Rosters
Mass voter purges in some states have resulted in thousands of people being unlawfully removed from the rolls of registered voters, as happened in Arkansas.
In 2016, the Arkansas Secretary of State passed along a list of names of felons to county clerks so their names could be flagged as ineligible to vote. The list was flawed as it included names of non-felons and people who had voted in previous elections after having their voting rights restored.
County clerks had no official process for handling the voter verification or purge and thus each had a different method, with many clerks simply removing the names from the roster automatically. Some counties double-checked before mass removal. In one county, of the 144 people on the list to be removed from the rolls, 116 were actually fully eligible to vote.
While Arkansas eventually sorted out its voting rolls missteps, this kind of malfeasances further disenfranchises potential voters and unlawfully removes legal voters from the rolls.
Impact on Voters
The SCOTUS ruling means the onus is on individual citizens to ensure they remain eligible to vote, by participating in elections regularly and checking state voter registration databases to confirm they are eligible to vote. Each state’s Department of Elections website can provide information on how citizens confirm their right to vote, and nothing illustrates the need to exercise that right more than the SCOTUS ruling.
In supporting Ohio’s aggressive voter purge, the court signals a willingness to defend states’ efforts that restrict voting to just those who exercise the right regularly. If voters already feel disenfranchised, this move is not likely to improve that sentiment and may further restrict the participation of those most likely to feel excluded from full participation in government, such as poor and minority citizens. That’s the most devastating impact.
Stacy Fitzgerald is a Washington, DC area Gen Xer whose obsessions include politics, traveling and food and wine ventures.