Supreme Court Upholds Ohio’s Purge of Voting Rolls

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Federal laws prohibit states from removing people from voter rolls “by reason of the person’s failure to vote.” But they allow election officials who suspect that a voter has moved to send a confirmation notice.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the majority, said federal laws allowed such notices as part of a process to cull inaccuracies from the voting rolls. A key provision, he wrote, “simply forbids the use of nonvoting as the sole criterion for removing a registrant, and Ohio does not use it that way.”

“Instead,” he wrote, “Ohio removes registrants only if they have failed to vote and have failed to respond to a notice.”

Justice Alito wrote that Congress had good reason to urge states to clean up their voting rolls. Citing a 2012 report from the Pew Center on the States, he wrote that some 24 million voter registrations were estimated to be invalid or significantly inaccurate, and that 2.75 million people were registered to vote in more than one state.

In dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote that the goal of ensuring the accuracy of voting rolls did not justify erecting obstacles to prevent eligible voters from casting ballots. “The purpose of our election process is not to test the fortitude and determination of the voter, but to discern the will of the majority,” he wrote, quoting a Senate report.

In 2012, Justice Breyer wrote, Ohio sent out 1.5 million notices, to roughly 20 percent of the state’s registered voters. But only 4 percent of Americans move outside their county each year, he wrote.

“Ohio only received back about 60,000 return cards (or 4 percent) which said, in effect: ‘You are right, Ohio. I have, in fact, moved,’” Justice Breyer wrote. “In addition, Ohio received back about 235,000 return cards which said, in effect, ‘You are wrong, Ohio, I have not moved.’”

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