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Court: Ohio violated federal election law by purging voters

by MARC KOVAC | CAPITAL BUREAU CHIEF Published: September 23, 2016 4:32 PM

Columbus -- The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled Sept. 23 that the state violated federal election law with its method for removing people from the voter rolls, remanding the case for further consideration.

The result was met with cheers from voting rights advocates, who have been critical of Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted and the way the state purged formerly eligible voters.

"Today's decision is a victory for voters, voting rights and common sense," State Rep. Kathleen Clyde (D-Kent) said in a statement. "Husted must stop illegally purging eligible and registered voters. Now, Ohioans who are registered and show up to vote can be confident that their ballots will be counted instead of thrown out. This decision upholds the fundamental right to vote, and the purpose of the National Voter Registration Act: to register eligible voters and keep eligible voters on the rolls."

Husted, in a separate statement, said the decision could be appealed.

"It is one thing to strike down a longstanding procedure; it is another to craft a workable remedy," he said. "To that end, if the final resolution requires us to reinstate voting eligibility to individuals who have died or moved out of Ohio, we will appeal."

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In the past, elections officials have sent postcards to voters who have moved or who have not "not engaged in any 'voter activity' for two years," to confirm their residence and voting status, according to documents. Those who did not respond and or vote in the subsequent two even-year elections were removed from the rolls.

According to documents, " A voter is purged from the rolls after six years of inactivity -- even if he or she did not move or otherwise remains eligible to vote."

Husted has said that, under his administration, dead people and duplicate names have been removed from the rolls as part of efforts to update the state's voter database.

But the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and others filed suit to block the secretary of state's office from purging eligible voters.

In late June, a district court denied the plaintiffs' motions for summary judgment and a preliminary injunction, ruling that the process used by elections officials to confirm voters' addresses and registrations were consistent with federal law.

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The 6th Circuit on Sept. 23 disagreed, sending the case back to the district court for further consideration.

"We're pleased the court recognized that voter inactivity is not sufficient reason to block properly registered voters from making their voice heard in this year's Presidential Election," Carrie Davis, executive director of the League of Women Votes of Ohio, said in a released statement.

She added, "Unfortunately, it's unclear whether these voters' rights will be automatically restored since the state treats deceased voters the same as people who sit out a few elections. If the state is intent on managing the voter rolls effectively, why wouldn't they have the ability to make such an important distinction?"

Senate Minority Leader Joe Schiavoni (D-Boardman) added in a statement, "No one should show up at their polling place on Election Day to find out their name has been removed from the voting rolls simply because they have not voted recently. Imagine if there were time limits on Ohioans' ability to exercise freedom of speech or other constitutionally protected rights."

Husted, however, said the ruling "will effectively force us to put voters back on the voter rolls who have died or long since moved to another address. This ruling overturns 20 years of Ohio law and practice, which has been carried out by the last four secretaries of state, both Democrat and Republican. It also reverses a federal court settlement from just two years ago that required exactly the opposite action."

The three-judge appeals court panel was not in complete agreement -- Circuit Judge Eugene E. Siler Jr. concurred in part and dissented in part.

He also offered, "Because of the urgency of this issue and the need to allow the Supreme Court to consider it, I write the dissent/concurrence in condensed fashion. It does not reflect the extent to which I disagree with the majority opinion, although I respect it."

Marc Kovac is the Dix Capital Bureau Chief. Email him at mkovac@dixcom.com or on Twitter at OhioCapitalBlog.

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