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Ohio Officials Defend Voter Roll Purges Before U.S. Supreme Court

Jay LaPrete
Associated Press
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted drops off his ballot at the Franklin County Board of Elections in 2016.

Ohio officials and civil liberty advocates are in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday for a U.S. Supreme Court case that could have implications for how several states update their voter rolls.

At issue before justices is Ohio’s process for removing inactive voters from state databases, a process that the American Civil Liberties Union calls an overly-aggressive purge of eligible voters.

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.

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a ruling that called the process illegal, said the state forms sent to voters to confirm their registration are “blatantly noncompliant” with federal law.

The National Voter Registration Act, also known as the Motor Voter Law, bans election officials from removing people from voter rolls over a failure to vote. But Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted has repeatedly defended the process as his legal obligation to update voter rolls.

“We have the responsibility under state and federal law to maintain accurate voter rolls,” Husted says. “And in some counties in Ohio, even after all of these efforts to reach voters, we still have some counties that have had more voters on the voter rolls than they’ve had people living in the county.”

When asked if the state could still update voter rolls while changing the process, Husted says this is the way Ohio has done it for more than 20 years. And Husted says it's "never been easier to register to vote in Ohio."

“A lower court ruled in our favor, by a 2-1 margin," Husted says. "And an appeals court ruled against us. We’ll find out what the Supreme Court has to say about it.”

Freda Levenson, Legal Director of the ACLU of Ohio, has said purging voters simply because they have exercised their right not to vote is a form of voter suppression.

"We are confident that the Supreme Court will uphold the correct decision from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, and will ultimately ensure that eligible Ohio voters may not be stricken from the rolls," she said.

The Supreme Court case features Larry Harmon, a resident of northeast Ohio who was removed from state voter rolls after failing to vote in several elections.

If the Supreme Court does strike down Ohio’s system for updating voter rolls, it could affect more than a dozen other states that use a similar process. In a reversal, the Trump administration and Justice Department have submitted arguments on the side of Ohio officials, while several other states and Sen. Sherrod Brown have submitted arguments against Ohio.

The court is expected to release a ruling this spring.