The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday revived Ohio’s contentious policy of purging infrequent voters from registration rolls in a ruling powered by the five conservative justices and denounced by liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor as an endorsement of the disenfranchisement of minority and low-income Americans.
In a 5-4 decision in the closely watched voting-rights case, the high court overturned a lower court’s ruling that Ohio’s policy violated a 1993 federal law enacted to make it easier to register to vote. All four liberal justices dissented, and top Democrats said the decision will boost what they called Republican voter-suppression efforts. But other states may now follow Ohio’s lead.
Voters purged from registration rolls who challenged the policy in the Republican-governed state argued that the practice illegally erased thousands of voters from registration rolls and disproportionately impacted racial minorities and poor people who tend to back Democratic candidates.
The state said the policy was needed to keep voting rolls current, removing people who have moved away or died.
Under Ohio’s policy, if registered voters miss voting for two years, they are sent registration confirmation notices. If they do not respond and do not vote over the following four years, they are purged.
“This decision is validation of Ohio’s efforts to clean up the voter rolls and now with the blessing (of the) nation’s highest court, it can serve as a model for other states to use,” Republican Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted said.
Five other states also remove voters from their registration lists for failure to vote. The challengers called Ohio’s policy the most aggressive.
Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said the court was not deciding whether Ohio’s policy “is the ideal method for keeping its voting rolls up to date. The only question before us is whether it violates federal law. It does not.”
Many states over the decades had erected barriers to voting, sometimes targeting black voters. The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) among other provisions had forbade removing voters from registration lists for failing to vote.
In a dissenting opinion, Sotomayor said the ruling “ignores the history of voter suppression against which the NVRA was enacted and upholds a program that appears to further the very disenfranchisement of minority and low-income voters that Congress set out to eradicate.”
A 2016 Reuters analysis found roughly twice the rate of voter purging in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods in Ohio’s three largest counties as in Republican-leaning neighborhoods.