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OPINION: What happened to my Ohio voter’s registration?

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Ohio’s inactive voter purge is illegal, opinion writer Dawson Mecum argues. 

In an unusual turn of events, the Justice Department under the Trump administration has decided to reverse its stance on the current purge of inactive voters going on in the state of Ohio. According to The Chicago Tribune, attorneys took the opposite position from the Obama administration in a case that involved the state’s removal of thousands of inactive voters from the Ohio voting rolls.

The Hill stated that last year many Civil Rights Groups, such as the Philip Randolph Institute, questioned whether this practice was constitutional or if it abided by the guidelines of the National Voter Registration Act. The Supreme Court is expected to hear this case during its next term (Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute). The fact that the Supreme Court has to get involved with the infraction of American rights is absurd.

The Ohio procedure allows the state to purge voters meeting certain criteria for being inactive. If a voter has not cast a ballot in two years, the person is sent a notice asking to confirm registration. If the voter does not respond and does not cast a ballot over the next four years, the person is removed from the rolls.

This sudden change of position is both strange and startling. The Justice Department argues that Ohio is not removing voters from its list just because of their inactive status. The Justice Department brief states “Registrants are sent a notice because of that initial failure, but they are not removed unless they fail to respond and fail to vote for the additional period.”

No matter their reasoning, the law and the case itself hasn’t changed within the last year and it just shows that the Trump Administration’s Justice Department is more worried about Obama than it is upholding federal law.

First of all, the claim that Ohio’s purging of inactive voters goes against the National Voter Registration Act is a fact. Section 8 of the NVRA gives clear guidelines for when a state is allowed to cancel someone’s voter registration. According to Section 8, states are prohibited from removing registrants from the voter registration list solely because of a failure to vote. It also places restrictions of notice and timing on removals from the voter registration list based on a change of residence.

Clear as day, it already states that it’s illegal to cancel someone’s voter registration because of their failure to vote. Now the Justice Department claims that this is not what the system does, but that they are removed based on their failure to vote and their failure to respond to notices. Jon Husted, Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State and a candidate for governor in 2018 says that this practice is used to clear the voter database of those who have died or have moved away.

“Maintaining the integrity of the voter rolls is essential to conducting an election with efficiency and integrity,” Husted said in a statement in May when the Supreme Court said it would hear the case.

“I remain confident that once the justices review this case they will rule to uphold the decades-old process that both Republicans and Democrats have used in Ohio to maintain our voter rolls as consistent with federal law.”

The problem with his statement is that it does not follow federal law, and anyone who can read a legal document can see that. According to the NVRA Section 8, states are permitted to remove the name of a person from the voter registration rolls upon the request of the registrant, and, if state law so provides, for mental incapacity or for criminal conviction.

The act also requires states to conduct a general voter registration list maintenance program that makes a reasonable effort to remove ineligible persons from the voter rolls by reason of the person’s death, or a change in the residence of the registrant outside of the jurisdiction, in accordance with procedures set forth in the NVRA. The list maintenance program must be uniform, nondiscriminatory and in compliance with the Voting Rights Act.

The argument could be made that if citizens fail to respond to these warnings, or fail to vote, it’s a sign of a person who has moved away from their current residence. Also, there are multiple warnings sent before the registration is cancelled. Section 8(d) does allow a state to cancel a person’s registration if he/she fails to respond to a notice however, it also states that a notice can not be triggered based on a person’s failure to vote, which is the main issue with the opposing argument.

Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School who worked in the Obama administration on this issue said the brief suggested that Ohio “can purge people who have ostensibly moved without any evidence that they have actually moved.”

Now, while Ohio’s voter registration laws may be unlawful, they were initiated with good intent to rid the voter registration list of ineligible voters. According to judicialwatch.org, on Feb. 6, 2012, Judicial Watch sent a letter to Husted notifying him that the state of Ohio was in violation of Section 8 of the NVRA and that, as the chief state election official in Ohio, he is responsible for Ohio’s compliance with the NVRA.

Based upon an analysis of U.S. Census and other data, Judicial Watch found that the number of persons listed on voter registration rolls in three counties in the State of Ohio exceeded 100 percent of the total voting age population. Judicial Watch also noted that 31 other Ohio counties contained registration rolls that contain between 90 percent and 100 percent of total voting age population.

Typically, only 71 percent of eligible voters register to vote. So this conundrum started with Husted trying to fix Ohio’s violation of section 8 of the NRVA. The reasoning is moral, however, the practice is illegal. The fact that the Supreme Court has to hear a case in which it is obvious that voter rights are being taken away is again, absurd, and a waste of the court’s time.

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