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OH at center of national fight over registered voter rights

13 January 2018

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"We are confident that the Supreme Court will uphold the correct decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and will ultimately ensure that eligible OH voters may not be stricken from the rolls", she said.

Ahead of Wednesday oral arguments for a Supreme Court case that could boost efforts to aggressively purge voter rolls, voting rights advocates weren't optimistic that they'd get a sweeping ruling in their favor, given the court's conservative make-up.

OH voters who do not cast a ballot for two years are sent a mailer asking if they wish to remain registered.

Needless to say, putting a hyper-partisan known voter suppressor on the federal bench in a red-run state that would be purple if the GOP's voting barriers were removed appalls civil rights groups. "Literally every other state uses a different, and more voter-protective, practice".

Voting rights groups have urged the justices to uphold the lower court's opinion. And a bare majority of the justices seemed to agree with the state officials.

The opponents say the 1993 National Voter Registration Act prohibits using voting inactivity to trigger purges and that OH purges registered voters who are still eligible to vote. "Isn't that enough even to spark an inquiry?" he asked. Under Ohio law, a voter who does not vote for two years is sent a notice, which asks him to confirm that he is still eligible to vote. If they fail to respond, or fail to vote for four consecutive years, they are removed from voter rolls. A handful of states, including Pennsylvania, use policies similar to Ohio's. If they do nothing, their names eventually fall off the list of registered voters.

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More broadly, Reuters notes, voting rights "has been an important theme before the Supreme Court during their nine-month term that began in October, in particular the question of whether actions by state leaders have disenfranchised thousands of voters either by marginalizing their electoral clout or by prohibiting them from voting".

The Supreme Court hinted it may allow states more flexibility to remove registered voters from state rolls during a lively argument on Wednesday.

The state "purges registered voters who are still eligible to vote", former and current OH elections officials said in a brief supporting the voters.

Opponents said the basic problem with what OH does is that it purges registered voters who are still eligible to vote. Overall, though, Kennedy was relatively quiet during the arguments, leaving his position unclear.

Breyer repeatedly pressed the lawyer for opponents of the process, but had no questions for the lawyer representing Ohio.

Most states periodically cleanse their voter rolls to prevent irregularities, such as someone voting a couple of times on Election Day. In that scenario, he explained, the failure to vote would truly not be the trigger for removal, because the state would have "concrete, reliable evidence" that the voter had moved. But, she continued to prod, is that a "reasonable effort" since the process results in disproportionately disenfranchising minority voters?

Dale Ho, Director, ACLU's Voting Rights Project: "Knocking eligible voters off the rolls simply because they exercise their right not to vote is illegal".

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Republican Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted noted that the state's policy has been in place since the 1990s under Republican and Democratic secretaries of state. Better, he said, to use driver's licenses or some other database.

"And when you don't get the notice back, what that tells you is absolutely nothing about whether the person has moved", Smith said.

In response to Sotomayor, Murphy stressed that "nobody is removed due to their failure to vote..."

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. Unless you return the notice, it removes you from the rolls.

But the simple requirement to keep your registration current isn't unreasonable.

But U.S. Solicitor General Noel Francisco - whose office changed sides in the case after Trump was elected - said OH has a right to streamline "over-inflated" and "bloated" voter registration rolls. It seems quite unusual that your office would change its position so dramatically.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the OH procedure would have a disproportionate impact on racial minorities and homeless people and was part of a broader movement that has reduced turnout in parts of the state. "Do you believe this doesn't have an impact, a negative impact on certain groups?"

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OH at center of national fight over registered voter rights