WASHINGTON – Failing to vote can lead to getting knocked off voter registration rolls, a deeply divided Supreme Court ruled Monday in a decision that probably will help Republicans and hurt Democrats.
The court’s conservative majority ruled 5-4 that Ohio did not violate federal laws by purging voters who failed to vote for six years and did not confirm their residency. Ohio has the strictest such law in the nation.
The ruling protects similar laws in six states, including several electing governors or U.S. senators this fall. They are Pennsylvania, Georgia, Oregon, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Montana.
Civil rights groups challenged Ohio’s procedure for cleaning up voter registration rolls, arguing that it disproportionately affects minorities, the poor and people with disabilities. The Trump administration reversed the position taken by its predecessor and sided with Ohio.
Justice Samuel Alito noted in his majority opinion that about one in eight voter registrations in the USA are invalid or inaccurate. He said failing to vote cannot be the sole reason for purging voters, but Ohio “removes registrants only if they have failed to vote and have failed to respond to a notice.”
“A state violates the failure-to-vote clause only if it removes registrants for no reason other than their failure to vote,” Alito said. By contrast, he said, Ohio waits six years before removal, following federal law “to the letter.”
Justice Stephen Breyer penned an 18-page dissent for the liberal wing of the court, marking the sixth time this term the four liberals have dissented as a bloc. Rather than focusing on messy voter rolls, he recited the history of literacy tests, poll taxes and other restrictions he said were designed to “keep certain groups of citizens from voting.”
Breyer noted that most voters simply ignore the warning notices, leaving their failure to vote as the principal cause for being purged from the rolls. The number who don’t vote or return notices far exceeds the number who actually have moved, he said.
“The streets of Ohio’s cities are not filled with moving vans; nor has Cleveland become the nation’s residential moving companies’ headquarters,” Breyer said. Rather, Ohio’s process “erects needless hurdles to voting of the kind Congress sought to eliminate.”
The ruling could be a major victory for Republicans, who tend to benefit from lower voter turnout, and a stinging loss for Democrats, who do best in high-turnout elections. That’s because minorities, young people and those with lower incomes are most likely to be disenfranchised by the state’s policy.
“Make no mistake: This case was about nothing more than Ohio Republicans trying to tilt elections in their favor by blocking communities of color from the ballot box — all under the guise of preventing ‘voter fraud,’ ” Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez said.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor made that point in a separate dissent, noting Ohio statistics show that the state’s process disproportionately affects minority, low-income, disabled and veteran voters.
“This purge program burdens the rights of eligible voters,” she said. “At best, purged voters are forced to needlessly re-register if they decide to vote in a subsequent election; at worst, they are prevented from voting at all because they never receive information about when and where elections are taking place.”
Paul Smith, a veteran Supreme Court litigator who presented the challengers’ case in January, said the court’s ruling will hurt infrequent voters “who have a certain political perspective.”
Myrna Pérez, director of voting rights and elections at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, warned that other states “will take this decision as a green light to implement more aggressive voter purges as the 2018 elections loom.”