The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments today in a case challenging Ohio’s controversial method for maintaining its voter rolls, and the major players from the case were there to hear it.
U.S. Army Sgt. Helle was in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, and in Afghanistan in 2009. But when he came home in 2011, he found a battle he didn’t expect. Helle showed up to vote that fall and found his name had been removed from the voter rolls.
“Honestly, I started crying. It was heartbreaking to be told that one of those fundamental rights that I put my put my life on the line for, raised my right hand for, that I wasn’t allowed to exercise it. I was protecting it for others but others weren’t able to protect it for me,” he said.
Helle is now the mayor of Oak Harbor near Toledo and a candidate for the Ohio House. He was at the U.S. Supreme Court with a coalition of mostly progressive-leaning groups opposing the two-pronged approach Ohio has to maintaining its voter rolls.
The process being challenged
If a voter doesn’t cast a ballot for two years, a postcard or mailer is sent to the address listed on the voter’s registration. If the voter doesn’t respond to the card and then doesn’t vote for another four years, he or she is removed from the voting rolls without further notice – whether the voter has moved or not.
More than 4.6 million of those cards have been sent to voters since 2011, the year Helle found out he was removed. At least hundreds of thousands of voters have been removed, but it’s unclear exactly how many.
Integrity of the voter rolls
Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted says the two-year window and the cards are part of the state’s legal obligation to remove the names of dead, imprisoned or otherwise ineligible voters.
“It's us trying to say to the voter, ‘Gee, have you moved? Do you want to update your information?’ It's done to try to be helpful to the voter and helping them update their information and also to make sure that we maintain the voter rolls, which is another piece of the law. So you have in the end a six-year period to interact, to vote, to let us know that you still want to be on the voter rolls,” he said.
But those challenging the process say voting is not a use-it-or-lose-it right, and that voters choose not to cast ballots because of illness, apathy, or other reasons – not because they’ve moved. Freda Levenson is the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.
“Close to 50 percent of Ohioans don’t vote in every given election. But not close to 50 percent of Ohioans have moved – the number is much closer to 2 percent. So the Secretary is purging vast numbers of completely eligible voters just to try to target a small, tiny handful of people who may have moved,” Levenson said.
But Husted says this method of voter roll maintenance has been in place since 1994 with virtually no problems until the lawsuit was filed in 2016.
“This process has worked very well in Ohio under Democratic and Republican administrations. Nobody in Ohio has expressed problems with this. It's only out of state folks who seem to have trouble with how to implement the laws in Ohio.”
But those challenging the state, led by the AFL-CIO affiliated A. Phillip Randolph Institute, say they’re doing so on behalf of Ohioans like Larry Harmon. The northeast Ohio man is featured in a video produced by the ACLU, another plaintiff in the case.
Harmon says that after several years of not voting, he discovered he’d been removed in 2015. That was the same year that many Ohioans who registered in 2008 – when Barack Obama won the state – also found they’d been erased from the rolls.
The plaintiffs won an appeals court ruling that resulted in more than 7,500 ballots cast by voters who’d been removed must be counted in the 2016 presidential election.
Last August, the Justice Department under President Trump reversed the position it had taken under President Obama and filed a brief to support Ohio’s case. Seven states are using a process similar to Ohio’s, so millions of voters around the country are potentially affected by the Court’s decision.