Supreme Court Upholds Ohio’s Purge of Voter Rolls

June 11, 2018 Updated: June 11, 2018

In 2015, Larry Harmon of Kent, Ohio went to his local polling place to vote on a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana, but when he got there, he found his name was not on the voter rolls.

Harmon had not voted for six years, and had not responded to post cards sent to verify that he was still a resident. In accordance with state law, his name was stricken from the voter rolls.

A civil rights group, the A. Philip Randolph Institute, sued Ohio Secretary of State John A. Husted on Harmon’s behalf.

Harmon’s suit was denied by a federal district court, which was then reversed by a federal appeals court. On June 11, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the appeals court decision, finding in favor of the Ohio secretary of state.

The decision was 5 to 4, with the Court’s conservatives and liberals each voting as a block. Justice Sam Alito wrote the majority opinion.

Any issue touching voting rights tends to be seen through a partisan lens. Republicans accuse Democrats of conspiring to commit voter fraud, and Democrats accuse Republicans of conspiring to suppress voters.

Alito quotes from Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s dissent as accusing the majority of “ignor[ing] the history of voter suppression” in this country and of “uphold[ing] a program that appears to further the . . . disenfranchisement of minority and low-income voters.”

Alito dryly observed that Sotomayor “has not pointed to any evidence in the record that Ohio instituted or has carried out its program with discriminatory intent.”

In 1993, Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), also known as the Motor Voter Act, which made it easier to register to vote in federal elections.

Among its provisions, the NVRA set out the procedures that states are to follow in purging their voter rolls.

Alito carefully parses the language of the NVRA to show that Ohio complied with it “to the letter.” The key issue is whether Ohio had used failure to vote as the sole reason for disqualifying a voter.

Alito writes Ohio had not done so. “Ohio removes registrants only if they have failed to vote and have failed to respond to a notice.” The Supreme Court ruling protects similar laws in six states.