This story has been updated.
Every year, Ohio officials scrub an untold number of names from state voter rolls under an aggressive and, some argue, unconstitutional policy that purges people who fail to vote in consecutive elections.
Joe Helle, the Democratic mayor of Oak Harbor, a small village near Lake Erie, says he was once among the disenfranchised. An Army veteran, he returned home after several years serving overseas to find his registration had been canceled.
On Wednesday, in a dramatic exchange at the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, he confronted Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, whom he believed was ultimately responsible for twice barring him from casting ballots.
But after video of the encounter circulated online, Cleveland.com and Husted’s surrogates noted that Husted had nothing to do with Helle’s removal. The process for canceling his registration was actually set in motion when Husted’s predecessor, Democrat Jennifer Brunner, was secretary of state.
“I’ve made it my mission as Secretary of State to make Ohio a place where it is both easy to vote and hard to cheat and by any objective measure we have achieved this goal,” Husted said in a statement emailed to The Washington Post.
“It is now easier for Ohioans serving in the military to vote than at any time in our state’s history,” he added, pointing to the state’s early voting program, online registration and military ready-to-vote program as examples.
Helle said his message remained the same.
“We shouldn’t be purging service members or veterans, or any Ohioans for that matter,” he told The Post on Friday.
For Helle, the moment was more than six years in the making. In 2011, he returned from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and tried to vote in a local election, only to be told that poll workers couldn’t find his name. A couple of months later, in the general election, he was blocked again. This time, board of elections officials revealed he had been removed from the state’s roll due to “inactivity.”
“I started crying,” Helle told The Post. “To come home after defending that fundamental right and to be told that I couldn’t exercise it, that was heartbreaking.”
Ohio’s voter registration rules are some of the country’s most punitive. Voters who fail to cast ballots for two years receive a notice in the mail. If they don’t respond, change their registration or vote in the following four years, they are purged from the rolls.
Since 2011, the practice has been overseen by Husted, who, like other supporters of such measures, says it is necessary to curb fraud and ensure the integrity of the state electoral system. The Democratic secretary of state before him used the practice as well.
But a group of Ohioans like Helle allege they were wrongfully disenfranchised under the “use-it-or-lose-it” policy, as it’s casually known. Purporting to represent thousands of other similarly situated Ohioans, they sued Husted in federal court, arguing the policy violates the U.S. Constitution and voting rights law. They were joined by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and a homeless advocacy group.
On Wednesday morning, after the lawsuit climbed through the lower courts over 18 months, the Supreme Court held closely watched oral arguments in the case.
The justices peppered the attorneys for the parties with questions about whether the policy was a reasonable and legally sound way for the state to prune its voter lists. But the real fireworks happened outside.
When Husted emerged from the building, Helle was waiting for him, flanked by supporters and camera crews.
“We believe our state is one where we make it easy to vote and hard to cheat,” Husted told Helle, according to NPR. “We make every effort possible to reach out to voters to get them registered to vote.”
Helle, who is not a plaintiff in the litigation, pushed back.
“I never received any such notice,” he told Husted, “because I was an active-duty soldier that maintained my home of record in the state of Ohio, came back home after defending that right, and could not exercise it because of this archaic, terrible policy.”
Video of the exchange captured by Cleveland.com showed the two standing just a few feet apart as a group of onlookers watched. Husted pursed his lips as he listened to Helle talk. Helle, he said, didn’t seem to grasp the policy.
“All you have to do is use your right to vote,” Husted said.
“From a mountainside, sir?” responded Helle, a former airborne infantry sergeant.
Husted told him the registration process took only minutes.
“What about soldiers serving overseas anywhere in the world, riding around in a Humvee, conducting missions 20 hours a day?” Helle asked. “What I know is that I was wrongfully purged.”
“You weren’t wrongfully purged,” Husted said. He then walked off, with Helle and several people behind him chanting “shame.”
As political theater, it seemed to work well for the 31-year-old veteran-turned-politician, who recently announced that he was running for the Ohio House of Representatives, hoping to unseat a Republican incumbent.
Husted is running for Ohio lieutenant governor on a ticket with Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who is running for governor
Brunner, Husted’s predecessor, in 2007 and again in 2009 ordered county election boards to take steps that resulted in people like Helle being scrubbed, Cleveland.com reported Friday. Under her directives, the boards mailed notices to anyone who hadn’t voted in two years and hand’t confirmed their address. If the voters didn’t reply to the mailings or vote in back-to-back elections, their names got deleted.
Helle first registered to vote in 2004, when he was 18. After joining the Army, he was sent to Alaska, then deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom between 2006 and 2011. He told The Post he tried to vote absentee from overseas, but his ballot never made it to Ohio.
County officials sent Helle a confirmation letter in 2008, then removed him as a registered voter on Jan. 13, 2011 after he didn’t respond, according to Cleveland.com. Husted had been in office for three days at that point. Helle learned of the move when he tried unsuccessfully to vote in two elections later that year.
Carol Ann Hill, director of the Ottawa County Board of Elections, said local officials, not Husted, were responsible for the decision.
“No. All 88 counties follow the law,” Hill told Cleveland.com. “The secretary of state does not say ‘OK, now it’s time to remove these voters.'”
By all appearances on Wednesday, Helle blamed Husted for disenfranchising him. Following their confrontation, a tweet went out from Helle’s Twitter account reading: “I was able to speak my truth to the man who silenced my vote.”
But he now suggests otherwise. And the tweet, Helle said, was written by a member of his team.
“I’ve never publicly, to my recollection, stated Jon Husted was specifically responsible,” he told The Post in an email. “However, while in DC I did have someone using my Twitter for me, to which they made an honest mistake and wrote a tweet that said I faced the person who purged me. It’s since been corrected.”
Helle, who was elected mayor of Oak Harbor in 2015, said his involvement with the voter purge case was a “pure accident.”
When he learned he was removed from Ohio’s rolls, “nobody really cared about the issue,” he told The Post. Years later, after putting the issue behind him, he stumbled across a Facebook post about the Supreme Court case and left a comment about what he went through. The left-leaning interest group Progress Ohio took notice, as did the ACLU, he said. Soon after, the calls started coming in from news organizations and advocacy groups.
His trip to Washington on Wednesday was paid for by an organization affiliated with one of the plaintiffs, he said. He woke up at 2 a.m., drove two hours to the airport in Detroit and boarded a predawn flight. By late morning, he was on Capitol Hill.
Before his confrontation with Husted, he gave a short speech about voting rights outside the high court. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) joined him in front of the portico, where the senator told reporters his state was engaging in “wholesale eliminating names of people who have served our country or people who haven’t.”
Voter fraud is rare in both Ohio and nationwide. Probes of supposed voting irregularities routinely fail to turn up evidence of widespread or even marginal instances of it. In Ohio, Husted’s own review of the 2016 election referred a mere 52 cases of possible fraud for prosecution or further investigation, as Cleveland.com reported.
Helle, who returned to Oak Harbor late Wednesday, said he was glad for the chance to “look this gentleman in the eye that’s driving the cart and ask him why this is worth removing servicemen and women from voter rolls.”
“The secretary of state,” he said, “is out of touch.”
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