Supreme Court Weighs Purge of Ohio Voting Rolls

The case concerns Larry Harmon, a software engineer and Navy veteran who lives near Akron, Ohio. He voted in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections but skipped the next one, saying he was unimpressed by the candidates. He also sat out the midterm elections in 2010 and 2014.

In 2015, Mr. Harmon did want to vote, against a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana. But his name had been stricken from the voting rolls.

Ohio is more aggressive than any other state in purging its voter rolls. After skipping a single federal election cycle, voters are sent a notice. If they fail to respond and do not vote in the next four years, their names are purged from the rolls.

A few other states use similar approaches, but none of them move as fast.

“Ohio is the only state that commences such a process based on the failure to vote in a single federal election cycle,” said a brief from the League of Women Voters and the Brennan Center for Justice. “Literally every other state uses a different, and more voter-protective, practice.”

In a Supreme Court brief, Ohio officials said the notices protect the integrity of the voting rolls, as failing to vote suggests that voters may have moved.

State officials said they sent Mr. Harmon a notice in 2011 and that he did not respond. He said he never saw the notice.

At Wednesday’s argument, the justices debated whether two federal laws allowed Ohio to cull its voting rolls based on failing to vote. The laws prohibit states from removing people from voter rolls “by reason of the person’s failure to vote.” But they allow election officials who suspect that a voter has moved to send a confirmation notice.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said that “Congress didn’t want the failure to vote to be a trigger for this procedure.”

Justice Sotomayor also said Ohio’s process ran afoul of the federal laws. “I don’t understand how you can say the failure to vote can be used as the sole basis for sending out notices,” she said.

But Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the laws appeared to permit Ohio to use its notification process.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled in favor of Mr. Harmon in 2016, saying that Ohio had violated the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 by using the failure to vote as a “trigger” for sending the notices.

Without that decision, “the ballots of more than 7,500 eligible Ohioans would have gone uncounted in…

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