THE SUPREME COURT on Monday upheld an Ohio law that allows state officials to purge voters from voter registration lists for dubious reasons. This is now a case of the law permitting one thing and common sense recommending another. Just because states can prune voting rolls the way Ohio has does not mean they should.
Ohio identifies voters for purging if they have failed to vote for two consecutive years, then it sends them a card asking if they are still living in the same place. If they fail to return the card and fail to vote for another four years, their names are struck from the rolls.
The National Voter Registration Act, also known as the motor voter law, forbids states from using nonvoting as the basis for removing a voter from the rolls. But the court majority found that states may use voter inactivity as “a rough way of identifying voters who may have moved,” as long as failing to vote is not the only criterion they use. Because Ohio also sends a card to registrants who have not voted for two years before purging them, the court found that the state satisfied the law’s requirements.
In a dissent, Justice Stephen G. Breyer lamented that Ohio’s policy “erects needless hurdles to voting” in a manner inconsistent with the intention of federal law to enable participation in the nation’s democracy. Though Ohio does not make nonvoting the sole criterion for removing a voter from the rolls, it does use it as the sole criterion for singling out voters for potential purging. A “person’s failure to vote is the sole basis on which the State identifies a registrant as a person whose address may have changed and the sole reason Ohio initiates a registered voter’s removal,” Mr. Breyer wrote. He continued, A “registrant who fails to vote in a single federal election, fails to respond to a forwardable notice, and fails to vote for another four years may well be purged.”
Though the court majority determined that this is legal, it is not wise. “Very few registered voters move outside of their county of registration,” Mr. Breyer noted. “But many registered voters fail to vote. Most registered voters who fail to vote also fail to respond to the State’s ‘last chance’ notice. And the number of registered voters who both fail to vote and fail to respond to the ‘last chance’ notice exceeds the number of registered voters who move outside of their county each year.” In other words, failing to vote and failing to return a card are terrible ways to judge whether someone has moved out of their voting precinct and an unjust way to adjust voter rolls.
Those least adept at responding to bureaucratic procedures, and those least motivated to vote, will find themselves purged. Many will be poor and minority voters — in other words, predominantly Democrats — which is why more Republican-governed states likely will now follow Ohio’s example.
States should be encouraging more civic participation, not less. In the United States, political legitimacy flows from popular approval. Systematically discouraging sections of the populace from voting is cynical and detrimental to the democracy.