High Court gives green light for states to purge electoral rolls

In a Monday Supreme Court ruling, a divided bench ruled states are within their rights to expel the names of voters who rarely cast ballots in elections.

The case, Husted, Ohio Secretary of State v. A. Phillip Randolph Institute, addresses an Ohio law which removed around 7,500 ineligible voters from voting rolls, including those who change residence.

The decision follows an Ohio resident, Larry Harmon, who attempted to vote in a state referendum concerning marijuana in 2015.  After rebuffing participation in the 2012 presidential election and two midterm cycles in 2010 and 2014, Harmon discovered he had been removed from the state’s voter rolls.

Under the contested Ohio law, registered voters who do not cast ballots over a two year period receive mailings asking to confirm residency.  In the event the resident chooses not to vote after the notice, the state removes them from its rolls.

Harmon claimed the Ohio law violated the 1993 National Voter Registration Act.  Critics claimed the state statute would trigger mass suppression of voters, particularly minorities.

In his majority opinion in favor of the state, Alito, who was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, wrote Ohio is complying with the 1993 National Voter Registration Act:

“The notice in question here warns recipients that unless they take the simple and easy step of mailing back the preaddressed, postage prepaid card — or take the equally easy step of updating their information online — their names may be removed from the voting rolls if they do not vote during the next four years.”  

“It was Congress’s judgment that a reasonable person with an interest in voting is not likely to ignore notice of this sort.  The only question before us is whether it violates federal law. It does not.”

In a searing criticism of the majority opinion, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote for the minority:

“The Court errs in ignoring this history and distorting the statutory text to arrive at a conclusion that not only is contrary to the plain language of the NVRA but also contradicts the essential purposes of the statute, ultimately sanctioning the very purging that Congress expressly sought to protect against.” 

While conservative groups praised the decision as a victory in the battle against potential voter fraud, liberal groups assailed the decision as a setback for minority and poor voters.

“The Supreme Court got this one wrong. The right to vote is not ‘use it or lose it,'” said League of Women Voters president Chris Carson. “This decision will fuel the fire of voter suppressors across the country who want to make sure their chosen candidates win reelection, no matter what the voters say.”


[NBC News] [SCOTUSblog] [The Hill] [Photo courtesy Allegra Boverman/New Hampshire Public Radio]