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Veteran Looks To Supreme Court To Strike Down Ohio's Voter Roll Purges

Joseph Helle
Former Army Sgt. Joseph Helle says he was removed from Ohio's voter rolls without notification, while he was serving overseas.

Former Army Sgt. Joseph Helle didn't realize something was wrong until he was at his polling place.

It was Helle's second time voting since he returned from serving overseas in 2011. The first time he voted provisionally. The second time, the Board of Elections told him he wasn't registered.

That confused him. He'd registered to vote when he turned 18, six years before. But because of an Ohio law that removes inactive voters off the rolls, that registration had been canceled and his vote this time would not be counted. 

"We shouldn't worry about losing our rights while we're off serving our country as we do," Helle says. "For me, I was in six and a half years, the last thing I was thinking about when I was coming back from a mission was getting my absentee ballot out."

In Ohio, if a registered voters fails to cast a ballot in a federal election for two years, it starts a series of events that culminate with a person’s registration being canceled if they fail to vote, re-register, or contact election officials within six years.

Helle was supposed to be notified of the change by mail, but he says he never received any alert he was no longer registered. His case is one of thousands in Ohio, where arguments over the state law will come before the U.S. Supreme Court this week.

“We have the responsibility under state and federal law to maintain accurate voter rolls,” said Secretary of State Jon Husted in an interview with WOSU.

In "Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute," Husted and Ohio officials argue that the law helps ensure election security, but Helle doesn't believe the numbers bear that out.

"Four-thousandths-of-1-percent of Ohioans were actually in the wrong when it came to vote," Helle says. "So there's no issue with integrity at all. So if it's not an integrity issue, what is it?"

Helle is now the mayor of Oak Harbor in northern Ohio, and a candidate for the Ohio House, and he has exercised his right to vote many times since. But just because he can vote in every election, doesn't mean he wants to.

"The right to vote is as important as the right not to vote," Helle says. "By not voting, I'm saying, 'Hey, you're not worthy of my vote.' Why should we require people then to go to the ballot, look at all these names, and submit an empty ballot? It's unreasonable."

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Ohio in 2016, saying the state's voter roll purges are illegal and that the forms sent to voters are “blatantly noncompliant” with federal law. Ohio appealed, and arguments in the Supreme Court case begin Wednesday. 

A ruling is expected in the spring.

Clare Roth was former All Things Considered Host for 89.7 NPR News. She joined WOSU in February of 2017. After attending the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, she returned to her native Iowa as a producer for Iowa Public Radio.