Ohio's Secretary of State is defending his state's process for pruning its voter rolls after oral arguments about the system at the Supreme Court.
However, federal laws such as the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA) and the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA) prohibit states from removing voters exclusively for voting inactivity. So he joined a civil rights group in suing the state. A handful of states, including Pennsylvania, use policies similar to Ohio's.
"You have a right not to vote", said Sonia Sotomayor.
Justices Elana Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor tag teamed in grilling Ohio Solicitor General Eric E. Murphy on whether Ohio's procedure discriminates against people who find it hard to vote and those who decide not to vote as a First Amendment issue. The court has a 5-4 conservative majority.
He said OH is violating the National Voter Registration Act, which specifies that voters can be purged from the rolls only if they ask, move, are convicted of a felony, become mentally incapacitated, or die. "What we're talking about are the best tools to implement that goal".
In keeping with federal protections, the Supreme Court should send a strong message that states should not purge eligible residents and voters from their rolls.
If you live in OH, your failure to vote - for whatever reason - for two years would have triggered a process that could have resulted in your being purged from the state's voter rolls.
They called Ohio's policy the most aggressive.
Under the disputed procedure, OH mails notices to people who haven't voted in two years, asking them to confirm that they still live at that address. If the notice is ignored and the voter fails to update a registration over the next four years, the registration is canceled.
A ruling is expected by June.
Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, as well as Chief Justice John Roberts, Samuel Alito and Anthony Kennedy, pushed the lawyer for the challengers. "It's evidentiary, it's not ground for removal itself", Alito told the plaintiffs. She suggested it was unreasonable to use non-voting as a trigger for the process.
The Supreme Court is diving into state efforts to pare their voting rolls by targeting people who haven't voted in a while.
"People have a right not to vote if they choose", Sotomayor said.
According to The Nation, from 2011 to 2016, OH - a state with more than 11 million residents - purged 840,000 voters from its voter rolls for such voting inactivity.
"I confess to doing that sometimes", Breyer said of putting mailings in the thrash. States can use change-of-address forms filed with the U.S. Postal Service, as well as government tax records, census lists and motor-vehicle department databases, the challengers say.
Supreme Court voting cases often split the liberal and conservative justices.
At issue in Wednesday's case, Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, was Ohio's registry maintenance policy. That practice is called partisan gerrymandering.
Republicans say voter rolls need scrutiny to prevent fraud and promote ballot integrity, while Democrats insist the efforts are meant to reduce turnout from Democratic-leaning groups like racial minorities.
Husted says the system has been in place for over 20 years, under Democratic and Republican secretaries of state.
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.
Dozens of voting rights activists gathered for a rally outside the courthouse before the arguments, with some holding signs displaying slogans such as "Every vote counts" and "You have no right to take away my right to vote".
The 1993 measure allows people to register to vote at the same time that they apply for or renew a driver's license, or try to obtain public assistance. "We know that's wrong", U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from OH, said at the rally.