High Court Upholds Ohio’s Right to Clean Voter Rolls

The 5-4 decision reverses appeals panel ruling that had blocked the state from removing dead wood from its registration database

Ohio on Monday won a big victory in the Buckeye State’s efforts to keep its voter rolls up to date and accurate, with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that it did not violate the Motor Voter law by removing voters.

At issue was whether the process used by the state violated the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993, or the more recent Help America Vote Act (HAVA). Justice Samuel Alito, in an opinion joined by the other four conservatives on the court, wrote that Ohio had followed the procedure laid out in the NVRA “to the letter.”

The dissent by Justice Stephen Breyer, which traced the long history of state laws restricting the right to vote, argued that the Ohio process “erects needless hurdles to voting of the kind Congress sought to eliminate by enacting the Registration Act.”

The ruling could have far-reaching effects. Georgia and 16 other states filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Ohio.

J. Christian Adams, president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation (PILF), praised the decision.

“Today’s ruling empowers local officials and concerned parties to utilize the NVRA to ensure the most accurate and reliable voter rolls possible,” he said in a statement. “The days of trying to hamstring maintenance responsibilities in the absence of federal guidance are over.”

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Adams called on other states to follow Ohio’s lead.

“Further, the court rightfully challenged notions that officials were handcuffed to only taking maintenance action in the event of voter death or relocation,” he stated. “States and locales are charged today to take action utilizing modern tools and best practices to best serve resident citizens.”

Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton noted on a video posted Monday that it was his organization’s lawsuit that prompted Ohio to get more aggressive in purging ineligible voters in the first place.

“You got to ask yourself, why doesn’t the Left like efforts to clean up those voting rolls? Why do they hate election integrity?” he asked. “And I think the inescapable conclusion is that they want to be able to steal elections, if necessary.”

Attorneys for the organizations that challenged Ohio’s practice expressed disappointment. Dale Ho, director of the Voting Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) predicted dire results for voting rights.

“Voters should not be purged from the rolls simply because they have exercised their right not to vote,” he said in a statement. “This ruling is a setback for voting rights, but it is not a green light to engage in wholesale purges of eligible voters without notice.”

Stuart Naifeh, senior counsel at Demos — a left-wing group that led the legal team challenging Ohio — warned that his organization would continue to “fight back in the courts” if states view the ruling as a sign they can be reckless.

“Today’s decision threatens the ability of voters to have their voices heard in our elections,” he said in a statement.

As the majority opinion noted, experts have estimated that about 24 million voter registrations are invalid or inaccurate. The Pew Center on the States estimated in a 2012 report that 2.75 million Americans are registered in more than one state.

Under Ohio’s procedure, elections officials send a notification to any voter who fails to vote in a two-year period. The state presumes a voter has moved if he does not respond to that notice to confirm he still lives at the address on file and also fails to vote in at least one election over the next four years.

Breyer argued that the state’s process violated the statute’s prohibition against removing a voter from the rolls “by reason of the person’s failure to vote.”

“There is no plausible reason why Congress would enact the provision that respondents envision.”

But Alito maintained that Ohio does not base its decision to remove voters “solely” on their failure to vote but also on the failure to respond to the notice from elections officials. What’s more, he added, the state also keeps voters on the rolls if they take nonvoting actions like filling out a voter registration form or signing a petition.

Alito rejected the minority opinion’s interpretation of a provision in the Help America Vote Act clarifying the motor voter law’s purging procedures. That law states that “nothing in this paragraph may be construed to prohibit a state from using the procedures described” in the motor voter law.

“There is no plausible reason why Congress would enact the provision that respondents envision,” Alito wrote.

He compared it to one law setting the drunken driving threshold at a blood alcohol level (BAC) at .08 and another law setting it at .10.

Related: Supreme Court Raises Stakes on Ohio Election-Integrity Case

“The second provision would not only be redundant; it would be confusing and downright silly,” he wrote.

Although he joined the majority opinion, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a separate concurring opinion expressing his belief that states have broad leeway under the Constitution to set their own voter qualifications.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in addition to joining Breyer’s dissent, wrote separately to emphasize her belief that the majority’s interpretation ignores the intent of the motor voter law — to expand, not restrict, voter participation.

“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,” she wrote.

PoliZette senior writer Brendan Kirby can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter.

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