Supreme Court upholds state law on voter registration

  • 12 June 2018
  • msell

The Supreme Court ruled this week that states may remove voters from the rolls of those voters have not cast ballots in recent elections and have not responded to follow-up communications asking them to confirm their eligibility.

The case came from Ohio, where a man who had not voted in two consecutive elections, and ignored a notice from the elections board, sued to have his name restored to the rolls. In its 5-4 ruling, the Court said Ohio's practice wasn't just constitutional, it was legally required under federal law:

In a decision by Justice Samuel Alito, the court emphasized that subsection (d) of the NVRA specifically allows states to remove a voter who “has failed to respond to a notice” and “has not voted or appeared to vote.” Indeed, the majority stressed, not only “are States allowed to remove registrants who satisfy these requirements, but federal law makes this removal mandatory.” The Ohio practice at issue in this case, the majority concluded, “follows subsection (d) to the letter”: “It is undisputed that Ohio does not remove a registrant on change-of-residence grounds unless the registrant is sent and fails to mail back a return card and then fails to vote for an additional four years.”

For the five justices in the majority – Alito, along with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch – the extent to which Ohio's practice hews to subsection (d) was enough. And they rejected the challengers' argument that the state's practice violates the ban on removing voters from the registration lists “solely by reason of a failure to vote” because it uses the failure to vote as the trigger for sending the return card. The majority reasoned that Ohio's practice would violate the “failure-to-vote” clause “only if it removes registrants for no reason other than their failure to vote.” But here, the majority reiterated, the state “removes registrants only if they have failed to vote and have failed to respond to a notice.”

The Court's liberal justices firmly disagreed, with justice Sonia Sotomayor likening Ohio's practice to voter suppression efforts aimed at the poor and minorities:

“Today's decision,” Sotomayor concluded, “forces these communities and their allies to be even more proactive and vigilant in holding their States accountable and working to dismantle the obstacles they face in exercising the fundamental right to vote.”

Deciding not to vote is one thing. Deciding not to vote repeatedly, and then ignoring a letter from the election board asking a voter to confirm they still want to be registered is hardly suppression. Maintaining the integrity of the voter rolls is a legitimate, and essential, state function. But it also puts responsibility on the voter to be both active and responsive. We too easily forget that each of our rights comes with a responsibility. It's regrettable a court has to remind some folks of that simple truth.

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