The Supreme Court is set to hear another case on voting rights, but not about gerrymandering this time. The State of Ohio is being sued for their methodology in purging their voter registry that some are calling illegal. Here’s the sparknotes of what happened.
In 1993, Congress under the Clinton administration passed the National Voter Registration Act, known colloquially as the Motor Voter Act, which sought to increase voter registration rates by removing barriers to registration. The act required that voter registration be offered to anyone getting or renewing a driver’s license or seeking social services. It also outlines very specific conditions under which individuals can or can’t be removed from the list of registered voters.
Among other reasons including incarceration or mental defect, a person can legally be removed from the rolls if they move to a different location, under which circumstance they’d have to re-register at their new place of residence. The act also explicitly prohibits a state from removing someone from the rolls for simply failing to vote in an election or consecutive elections. It’s this last part that’s up for debate.
The state of Ohio wanted to clean up their voter records and started by collecting a list of all registered Ohio residents who hadn’t voted in THIS amount of time. Ohio mailed all the people on this list a postcard that noted that the recipient had to either return the postcard or vote in the next two elections or else they would be de-registered to vote.
Ohio believed its behavior perfectly lawful — the Motor Voter act makes it clear that someone can be removed from the rolls for moving, and the state of Ohio took failure to return the postcard evidence that the person had moved. It’s perfectly legal to remove someone from the rolls if they had moved, and since Ohio told it’s inhabitants that failure to return the postcard constituted evidence of moving, the Ohio officials were in the clear.
However, those filing the lawsuit claimed that this purge was predicated on failure to vote. Since the only way that a person showed up on the list was if they had failed to vote, the plaintiffs claim that Ohio was effectively de-registering voters for failing to vote, a clear and flagrant violation of the Motor Voter Act.
Dahlia Lithwick interviewed one of the victims of the great purge. Joseph Helle went through the same process — having failed to return the postcard or vote in the next two elections, his voter registration was nullified. The reason? He was overseas, serving in the US Army in Iraq. He recounts that he went to try to vote once he came home and was overcome by emotion when he was told he was no longer registered.
The Courts will hear the case in the upcoming term to determine whether Ohio violated the Motor Voter Act and must stop its practice of de-registering voters.