The U.S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote on Monday found that Ohio’s method of removing people from voter rolls does not violate federal law, allowing the state and its boards of elections – including the one in Athens County – to continue that practice.
The Athens County Board of Elections last removed a total of 6,141 Athens County voters from its rolls in 2015, county Board of Elections Director Debbie Quivey said Tuesday.
That was the last time the Board of Elections “purged” its voter rolls, however. Quivey said that since Ohio’s voter registration removal process was challenged and found by the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals to violate the National Voter Registration Act in 2016, the Athens County Board of Elections has not attempted to purge any voters en masse.
Quivey provided a copy of a letter from Ohio Secretary of State John Husted’s office that was sent to county boards of elections in October 2016 that requested that they count provisional ballots from voters not registered to vote in Ohio if their registration had been canceled in 2011, 2013 or 2015. This most recent U.S. Supreme Court Decision reverses that Sixth Circuit decision.
However, Husted has instructed boards of election across the state to not resume the process of purging voters until after the November 2018 election. Federal law prohibits revoking voter registrations less than 90 days prior to a federal election, and a special election for a congressional seat in central Ohio (12th District) has been scheduled for Aug. 7.
Husted, a Republican and lieutenant governor candidate with Republican governor candidate Mike DeWine in the upcoming November election, told the Columbus Dispatch in 2016 that the purge of voters his office performs is done in accordance with state and federal laws, and argued that some of those purged are “deceased voters” or “people who have moved out of state.” His office at the time said it had removed 465,000 dead voters and 1.3 million “duplicate registrations.”
J. Bennett Guess, executive director of the ACLU of Ohio, said during a talk at the Athena Cinema last November that the voter-purging efforts in Ohio disproportionately impact economically disadvantaged people and people of color (who typically vote Democratic).
If an Ohio voter does not vote in two years, the voter’s county board of elections sends a single address confirmation notice to the last address on the voter’s file; if they don’t return the notice or respond online, and continue not to update that registration or vote for the next four years, the registration is canceled.
Quivey said that’s the process that the Athens County Board of Elections has followed for a long time, regardless of the political party of the person holding the Ohio secretary of state position.
Quivey said she couldn’t provide much more info on the 6,141 people who had their registration canceled in 2015, although she said that most voter registrations are typically canceled for voting inactivity. She said a similar purge was done in 2013, and said she expects that a similar number of people were removed from the voter rolls that year.
Quivey said it’s “very, very” possible that quite a few of those people were Ohio University students because of their inherently transient status.
Quivey also challenged the idea that the notice for re-registration may not be making it to the person who hasn’t voted, noting that in most cases the post office provides a forwarding address if the person provides one. She added that there’s a statewide “duplicate registration” database shared among all 88 county boards of election that notifies the boards if somebody registered in another county tries to register or vote in another county.
She also explained that when people renew their driver’s license, typically Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles employees will ask if the person wants to register to vote, which restarts the cycle (meaning the person has another roughly six years to vote before being purged).
Quivey said that personally, she doesn’t think that the process actively disenfranchises voters, as opponents of Ohio’s voter registration laws have charged.
“I feel very strongly about this; it’s a voter’s responsibility to vote and to pay attention; you have to be getting some type of card (in the mail),” Quivey said. “If you’re going to take care of your driver’s license, you can take care of your voter registration, and I’m a firm believer that if you’re going to register, you need to vote.”
However, the ACLU’s Guess during his appearance in Athens argued that the National Voter Registration Act makes it “very clear” that non-voting cannot be used as a mechanism for removing people from the voting rolls.
Justice Sonya Sotomayor, representing three other liberal-leaning U.S. Supreme Court justices in a dissenting opinion this past week, said the five conservative-leaning justices erred in their interpretation of the NVRA.
“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.”