In November of 2015, Larry Harmon, a software engineer then in his late 50s, went to the polls to vote against an Ohio ballot initiative to legalize marijuana.
It had been a few years since Harmon voted. He cast a ballot for President Barack Obama in 2008, but didn’t particularly care for the candidates in 2010, 2012 or 2014, so he didn’t vote. When he went to the polls for the marijuana initiative in 2015, officials said he couldn’t vote. He had been removed from the voter rolls. Even though he had lived at the same address for well over a decade, officials wouldn’t let Harmon cast a provisional ballot and so he left his polling place without voting, went home and later wrote an angry letter to Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted (R).
Ohio officials removed Harmon from the voter rolls in part because he failed to vote in federal elections over six consecutive years. One of the ways Ohio polices its voter rolls is by sending a confirmation notice to anyone who fails to vote in a federal election after two years. If the person fails to respond to that notice and also fails to vote over the next four years, they get removed from the rolls.
That process is being challenged in a consequential case the Supreme Court will hear on Wednesday: Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute. Harmon and civil rights groups argue the Ohio process violates federal law, which explicitly says people can’t be removed from the rolls just because they haven’t voted. Husted and others who defend the law say Ohio’s process is reasonable because people aren’t removed just for not voting ― they have to fail to respond to the mailer as well.
A Supreme Court ruling on the legality of the process could help clarify how aggressively states can purge their rolls and the limits the federal government can set on how states maintain lists of eligible voters.
The only thing that’s happened here is that people haven’t voted in a little while and didn’t answer a postcard. Justin Levitt
At the center of the case is one of America’s most important voting laws: the 1993 National Voter Registration Act. Passed with the goal of increasing voter registration, the NVRA requires states to give people an opportunity to register to vote at motor vehicle and other state agencies. But the law also requires a state to administer a “general program that makes a reasonable effort” to take ineligible people off the rolls. That program must be “uniform, nondiscriminatory, and in…