In a 5-4 decision last week, the Supreme Court upheld an Ohio law that removes voters from voter rolls after four years of inactivity. This reversed the 6th Circuit Appeals Court’s decision finding that the Ohio policy violated the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, a law that bans removing voters from voter rolls for failing to vote. The decision fell along ideological lines.
Under the Ohio “use it or lose it” policy, address confirmations are sent to registered voters after skipping an election cycle. If the voter fails to confirm their address or vote, their registration is cancelled after four years of inactivity.
Conservative Justices claimed that the notices served to correct inaccurate voter rolls. However, only 4 percent of respondents had actually changed addresses.
Justice Breyer dissented, writing that thousands of voters who did not respond but had not moved were removed from registration lists because of “the human tendency not to send back cards received in the mail.” A representative of the ACLU pointed out that most states confirm that voter registration information is up-to-date using tax or DMV records.
The conservative majority of Justices ignored arguments about the entrenched history of voter suppression among low-income and minority voters. Populations of voters from predominantly poor black neighborhoods were purged from Ohio’s voter rolls in the greatest numbers.
“Congress enacted the NVRA against the backdrop of substantial efforts by states to disenfranchise low-income and minority voters, including programs that purged eligible voters from registration lists because they failed to vote in prior elections,” Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote.
Justice Sotomayor went on to write that Ohio’s policy was one developed with “concerted state efforts to prevent minorities from voting and to undermine the efficacy of their votes.”
This case mirrors voter suppression tactics that have been uncovered in other states. In November 2016, voting rights protectors, including the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, filed a lawsuit in federal court alleging that three North Carolina counties illegally purged thousands of voters from the registration rolls, a disproportionate number of whom were African American. The passage of strict voter ID laws in many states has also increased the rate of voter discouragement. A 2017 study showed that as many as 23,000 eligible voters in Wisconsin were discouraged from casting a ballot in the 2016 presidential election due to the state’s voter ID laws.
Media Resources: CNN 6/11/18; New York Times 6/11/18; ACLU; Oyez 2017