Supreme Court upholds Ohio decision, says states can purge voters

Supreme Court
Photo Credit: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

A divided U.S. Supreme Court upheld an Ohio election law giving state officials the power to purge individuals from the voters rolls who fail to vote for six years and failed to respond to notices from election officials to confirm their residency.

Writing for the majority in a 5-4 decision Monday, Justice Samuel Alito wrote an estimated one in eight voter registrations in the United States are invalid or inaccurate.

“A state violates the failure-to-vote clause only if it removes registrants for no reason other than their failure to vote,” Alito said. By contrast, he said, Ohio waits six years before removal, following federal law “to the letter.”

Alito said Ohio’s voter removal system is not in violation of federal laws approved in 1993 and 2002 by Congress. 

“We have no authority to second-guess Congress or to decide whether” [Ohio’s law] “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.”


Not everyone agrees with the majority decision.

Justice Stephen Breyer wrote an 18-page dissent. There, he argued a voter’s failure to respond to a notice “is an irrelevant factor in terms of what it shows about whether that registrant changed his or her residence.”

“To add an irrelevant factor to a failure to vote, say, a factor like having gone on vacation or having eaten too large a meal, cannot change Ohio’s sole use of ‘failure to vote’ into something it is not,” penned Breyer.

Alabama U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell also disagrees with the high court’s decision, saying voting is not a “use it or lose it right.”

“Voting is not a use it or lose it right. It is a permanent right guaranteed by our Constitution,” explained Sewell. “The Supreme Court’s misguided decision today opens the door for states to disenfranchise voters just because they did not cast their ballot. Already we have seen the impact of this voter suppression tactic in Ohio where more than 7,000 votes were thrown out because of the state’s recent voter purge. In our democracy, your vote is your voice, and we cannot allow lawmakers to silence the voice of the people. Today, we must recommit ourselves to fighting voter suppression tactics, from voter purges to restrictive voter ID laws, wherever they exist.”

Sewell is the lead sponsor of the Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRAA), legislation which would restore protections for voters in states with a recent history of discrimination. Five years after the Supreme Court’s decision to gut the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, the VRAA addresses a wave of voter ID laws, racial gerrymandering, and other voter suppression tactics enacted at the state level.