OKLAHOMA CITY – The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that laws in Ohio and other states, including Oklahoma, that remove names from their voter rolls do not violate federal law.
Ohio law allows the state to send address confirmation notices to voters who have not engaged in voter activity for two years. If a voter returns the notice through prepaid mail, or responds online, the information is updated. If the notice is ignored and the voter fails to update a registration over the next four years, the registration is canceled.
The case came about when Larry Harmon challenged the process, arguing that he was removed from the rolls even though he had not moved, but rather had opted not to vote in 2009 and 2010. When he showed up at the polls in 2015, he was told his registration had been canceled. He claimed no recollection of receiving a confirmation notice from the state and he later brought suit along with two public interest groups called the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and the A. Philip Randolph Institute.
In September 2016, a federal appeals court ruled against Ohio, saying that 7,515 ballots that had been struck could be cast in the that fall’s election. The state appealed, saying the process targets people who have failed to respond to a notice, not those who have failed to vote.
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision in favor of Ohio.
“We have no authority to second-guess Congress or to decide whether Ohio’s supplemental process is the ideal method for keeping its voting rolls up to date,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the conservative majority. “The only question before us is whether it violates federal law.”
A dissent from Justice Sonia Sotomayor and liberal justices argued that the court ignored a history of voter suppression that the National Voter Registration Act, commonly referred to as the motor voter law, was meant to address.
“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,” Sotomayor wrote.
“The Court errs in ignoring this history and distorting the statutory text … ultimately sanctioning the very purging that Congress expressly sought to protect against,” she added.
At least six other states, including Oklahoma, have similar laws, and the ruling could embolden others to follow suit.
“Maintaining accurate voter rolls is vital to a well-functioning democracy and is instrumental in defending each citizen’s most precious right—the right to vote,” Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said. “There are too many sad chapters in American history where unscrupulous individuals have taken advantage of inaccurate voter rolls to sway elections by casting ballots on behalf of those who have died or moved away. I commend the Supreme Court’s decision today upholding the right of Oklahoma to ensure that Oklahoma elections are free from taint and fraud.”
Dale Ho, director of Voting Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, said the vast majority of other states find ways to make sure voter lists are up to date by using tax records, or returned mail or Department of Motor Vehicles change of address forms to determine whether someone may have moved.