Supreme Court Conservatives ‘Fuel the Fire’ of Voter Suppression

The 5-4 decision gives Ohio voting officials the green light to re-start purging its voter rolls just in time for the midterm elections.

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In 2015, over 40,600 registrants in Cuyahoga County were removed under the process upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday. Ty Wright/Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court’s conservative majority on Monday ruled Ohio’s procedure for canceling voter registrations didn’t violate federal election law, greenlighting the process for the upcoming 2018 midterm elections. 

In Ohio, election boards mail notices to registered voters who have not voted in two years and ask them to confirm that they are still eligible to vote. If a voter does not return the notice, their voter registration is canceled and they are removed from voting rolls. 

The challengers argued this process violates the portion of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) that bar states from removing registered voters just because they did not vote. A lower court disagreed and refused to block the process. The challengers appealed and the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, putting Ohio’s voter roll purge on hold. 

In a 5-4 decision written by Justice Samuel Alito, the court’s conservative majority ruled Ohio’s procedure for eliminating certain voters from its voter rolls did not violate the NVRA, reversing the Sixth Circuit ruling.

“We have no authority to second-guess Congress or to decide whether Ohio’s Supplemental Process is the ideal method for keeping its voting rolls up to date,” Alito wrote. “The only question before us is whether it violates federal law. It does not.”

Justices Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor issued dissenting opinions. Justice Breyer took issue with the majority’s interpretation of the NVRA. Justice Sotomayor wrote separately to address the NVRA’s legislative history as an effort to counteract state-level efforts to disenfranchise people of color and people with low incomes. The majority opinion, Sotomayor wrote, sidesteps this history. 

“Congress enacted the NVRA against the backdrop of substantial efforts by States to disenfranchise low-income and minority voters, including programs that purged eligible voters from registration lists because they failed to vote in prior elections,” Sotomayor wrote. “The Court errs in ignoring this history and distorting the statutory text to arrive at a conclusion that not only is contrary to the plain language of the NVRA but also contradicts the essential purposes of the statute, ultimately sanctioning the very purging that Congress expressly sought to protect against.”

In 2015, more than 40,600 registrants in Cuyahoga County were removed under the process, according to voting rights advocates like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The majority of these registrants lived in low-income communities and communities of color.

“This decision is a monumental setback for those who care about access to democracy in our country,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement. “The Court’s decision sends the wrong message to state officials, some of whom will likely interpret this decision as a green light to purge the registration rolls of legitimately registered voters.”  

Six other states, West Virginia, Montana, Georgia, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Oklahoma, have similar practices that target voters for removal from the rolls.

“The Supreme Court got this one wrong. The right to vote is not ‘use it or lose it,'” said Chris Carson, president of the League of Women Voters of the United States, in a statement. “The public trust in the fairness of our elections is badly shaken. This decision will fuel the fire of voter suppressors across the country who want to make sure their chosen candidates win reelection—no matter what the voters say.”