Court says Ohio can’t disqualify infrequent voters

By Evan Goodenow -




Haven’t voted in a while? You shouldn’t lose the right to vote.

That was the ruling Friday as the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a June 29 lower federal district court decision.

“Ohio has, for years, been removing voters from the rolls because they failed to respond to forms that are blatantly non-compliant with the (National Voter Rights Act),” said the decision by judges Eric Clay, Julia Smith Gibbons, and Eugene Siler Jr.

We found the number of Lorain County voters purged last year was 11,666. In our newspapers’ coverage areas, that includes 656 in Amherst and South Amherst, 1,860 in Oberlin and the surrounding townships, and 267 in Wellington and the surrounding townships. The list includes those who died or moved as well as for inactivity.

The June ruling upheld the right of the Ohio Secretary of State’s office voter purging process, which supporters say is designed to eliminate dead people and those who’ve moved out of state from voter rolls. The process has two elements.

The first is a change of address process in which the Secretary of State’s office matches its voter records with U.S. Postal Service records of voters who have filed change of address notifications. The second is a process in which voters who haven’t cast ballots for two years are sent verification notices. If they don’t respond within four years of receiving the cards, they are purged from the voter rolls.

Under the second process, someone who hadn’t voted since 2008 and hadn’t responded to the notices could be purged.

That led to a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union, the A. Phillip Randolph Institute (an organization of black community activists and union members), and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless.

The suit said about a million notices were sent last year and most were confirmation requests. The coalition said the supplemental process punishes homeless people who don’t have permanent addresses and are unlikely to receive voter confirmation notices.

Critics of Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, also alleged that that the purge was designed to disqualify voters who traditionally vote Democrat. They noted a Reuters study found voters in Democrat-leaning neighborhoods in Cuyahoga, Franklin, and Hamilton counties were about twice as likely to be purged for inactivity as in Republican-leaning neighborhoods.

At least 30,000 people who haven’t cast ballots and didn’t respond to voter confirmation notices have been purged from Ohio voter rolls since 2012, according to Reuters.

The 6th Circuit decision said the supplemental process notices were flawed. It questioned why voters should have to provide documentation of their address and identity if they hadn’t moved.

“Moreover, the notices did not adequately inform voters of the consequences of failing to respond to the notice: Rather, the form indicated that the recipient’s registration ‘may’ be canceled if he or she did not respond, re-register, or vote in the next four years,” the decision said. “Finally, the form failed to inform voters who had moved outside of Ohio on how they could remain eligible to vote in their new state.”

The decision sent the case back to the federal district court to develop a remedy.

Paul Adams, Lorain County Board of Elections director, said he’s waiting to see whether Husted will appeal the decision or issue a directive to his office. Adams said he hopes Husted decides before early voting begins Oct. 12, which would make it easier for his office to update its database.

“As long as we know before the beginning of early voting starts, I don’t seen any reason we can’t make accommodations for whatever rules come down,” Adams said. “If it goes past that date, then it becomes a little more challenging, but certainly not anything we’re (not) capable of doing.”

Husted in a written statement Friday said the ruling would force his office to put dead people and those who moved out of state back on voter rolls. Numerous studies have found voter fraud virtually nonexistent, including one by the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles that found 31 incidents of fraud out of more than a billion ballots cast in municipal elections between 2000 and 2014.

Nonetheless, Husted said the 6th Circuit decision would undermine voter confidence and “open the door to fraud.” He noted purges have been conducted for 20 years by both Democrat and Republican secretaries of state.

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

Mike Brickner, an Ohio ACLU spokesman, said in a written statement that he hopes the resolution reinstates the tens of thousands of voters purged from the rolls for the November election.

“It is critical that both election officials and voters know the rules in advance of Nov. 8,” he said.

Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.



By Evan Goodenow