SCOTUS should curb those Ohio voter roll purges

Chalk this one up as my first entry in the “Express Your Unpopular Opinion” category for 2018.

We’ve had more discussions here than I can count over problems with bad data in the voter rolls in this country and the exposure to potential inaccuracies and even voter fraud which can result from that mess. While some states choose to do almost nothing, others may be going too far in their efforts to be proactive. That’s one of the questions the Supreme Court will be wrestling with this session as they consider Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute. Ohio set up a system back in the 90s which boots people off the list of registered voters if they are inactive over a period of several elections and fail to respond to a notification that their registration may be invalidated. (PBS)

Ohio has used voters’ inactivity to trigger the removal process since 1994, although groups representing voters did not sue the Republican secretary of state, Jon Husted, until 2016. As part of the lawsuit, a judge last year ordered the state to count 7,515 ballots cast by people whose names had been removed from the voter rolls.

A federal appeals court panel in Cincinnati split 2-1 last year in ruling that Ohio’s process is illegal. In May, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.

Under Ohio rules, registered voters who fail to vote in a two-year period are targeted for eventual removal from registration rolls, even if they haven’t moved and remain eligible. The state says it removes names only after local election boards send notices and there’s no subsequent voting activity for the next four years. Ohio argues this helps ensure election security.

I’m not entirely unsympathetic toward Ohio in this matter because the vast majority of names which are dropped from the rolls apparently deserve to be deleted. They are frequently people who have died, gone to prison, or simply moved to a new address outside of the precinct where they are registered. Leaving their names on the rolls creates an exposure where someone else could show up on election day claiming to be one of those people and vote in their name with nobody being the wiser. But the elimination of names which legitimately shouldn’t be on the rolls isn’t the only possible outcome and the exceptions are a high price to pay for keeping the lists tidy.

The example that PBS chooses to focus on is that of Joseph Helle, a combat veteran who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the mayor of Oak Harbor, Ohio. Having registered to vote before leaving for the service, he never changed his address of residence but found that he was no longer registered when he returned home from the wars. Sure, that’s a worst case scenario and one likely chosen to tug at the public’s heartstrings, but the same thing can happen to almost anyone under the right conditions.

The problem here is that the “crime” being identified is that of failing to vote. If you miss one even-year election cycle (and many people never vote in the odd years) you are sent some sort of notification. If you fail to respond, simply because you never saw it, mistook it for something else and threw it away or simply forgot, you’ll need to vote at least once in the next four years. If not, your registration is canceled.

That’s a problem. Not voting isn’t a crime. You’re not obligated to vote at all. But if you followed the rules and registered and haven’t moved to a new area, it’s simply wrong to penalize someone for that. I’ve heard the arguments to the contrary, claiming that it’s not a “punishment” because you can always register again and fill in a provisional ballot on election day, but that’s really not satisfying when you consider that the person in question did nothing wrong to cause them any inconvenience in this fashion.

As unsatisfying as it may be to say, the onus isn’t on the voter here. If the state wants their voter rolls to be accurate and up to date, the responsibility is on the shoulders of the state. That doesn’t mean the task is easy or that it will be cheap, but it’s important and needs to be done. That means finding a way to ensure that everyone puts in a change of address when they move and that every death is reported to the state in a timely fashion with that information being shared with the keepers of the voter rolls. It also means that the courts need to ensure that every conviction which would suspend a person’s voting rights is similarly reported and recorded. A lot of errors could similarly be discovered through normal processes handled at the DMV. I’m opposed to automatic “motor voter” registration, but those driver’s license and state ID records could be compared to the voter rolls in an automated fashion to flag mismatches.

The point is that we have options which don’t involve simply dropping people from the rolls for the “sin” of not voting, whether that’s because they were serving in the military, suffering from a long-term illness or simply didn’t feel like going to the polls. Ohio’s method is well-intentioned, but it’s a bridge too far and the Supreme Court should scale it back a bit.

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