CHRIS BURY: Larry Harmon, a lifelong Ohioan who has lived in the same house near Akron for 16 years, never gave his voting registration a second thought.
LARRY HARMON: I’ve been voting since 1976. A couple of times I didn’t vote. If I felt I wasn’t up on the issues or I couldn’t really decide who was worse of the two candidates, I just wouldn’t vote.
CHRIS BURY: Harmon voted in the 2008 presidential election, but sat out the 2012 race. Then, last November, the 59-year-old software engineer and navy veteran arrived at his polling place — this high school — to vote on a ballot initiative that, he worried, would allow monopolies to control legalized marijuana in Ohio.
LARRY HARMON: I went down there to vote against it, and my name wasn’t on the list, and I couldn’t vote.
CHRIS BURY: Harmon was removed from the rolls of eligible voters in 2015, because he had not voted in the previous six years. When it comes to the right to vote, Ohio is a “use it, or lose it” state.
Just last year, Ohio’s 20 most populous counties purged more than 200-thousand inactive voters, according to research by PBS NewsHour Weekend. In Ohio’s largest county, Cuyahoga, with heavily democratic Cleveland- nearly 52,000 voters were purged.
LARRY HARMON: I thought, ‘Well, Jeez. You know I pay my taxes every year, and I pay my property taxes, and I register my car. So the state had to know I’m still a voter.’ Why should we fight for the country if they’re gonna be taking away my rights? I mean, I’m a veteran, my father’s a veteran, my grandfather’s a veteran, now they aren’t giving me my right to vote, the most fundamental right I have? I just can’t believe it.
CHRIS BURY: In Ohio, the Secretary of State sent out this form warning voters who have not cast ballots in two years to confirm their eligibility or risk having their voting registrations canceled. The practice has been state law under Democrats and Republicans for more than 20 years.
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican who served two terms as Speaker of Ohio’s statehouse, has increased enforcement of the practice.
CHRIS BURY: As secretary of state, is it your mission to ensure that as many people as possible vote in Ohio?
JON HUSTED: My goal is to strike the balance between making it easy to vote and hard to cheat.
CHRIS BURY: Husted says it’s his legal duty is to make sure voting rolls stay up to date and don’t become bloated with voters who’ve died or residents who’ve left Ohio like college students.
CHRIS BURY: Don’t I have the right to vote whenever I choose? If I don’t want to vote for 20 years, isn’t that perfectly fine?
JON HUSTED: It’s perfectly fine if you don’t. But you just have to re-register.
CHRIS BURY: Husted says the state maintains the accuracy of its voting list in two ways. First, by using the national post office database. But many people don’t register their new addresses when they move. That’s when the second process–known as purging–kicks in.
JON HUSTED: You’re inactive for two years, meaning that you’ve not voted, you’ve not done anything, we send you a card to say, “Hey, are you still registered to vote?” And, “Are you still living at this address?”
CHRIS BURY: To stay on the voter rolls, residents have four years to respond to the letter and confirm their address…or simply vote…or they can sign a petition — the kind that requires signatures from registered voters.
Harmon says he doesn’t remember receiving the form in the mail. So after being turned away from his polling place last year, he joined a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the public policy group Demos against Secretary of State Husted…challenging Ohio’s purge process.
Attorney Dan Tokaji, who’s a co-counsel on the lawsuit, says Ohio’s law violates the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, better known as the motor voter bill, which requires states to improve opportunities to register to vote, such as when applying for a driver’s license.
DAN TOKAJI: If the state has other reasons for believing somebody has moved, for example, if they get information from the post office indicating that that person’s address has changed, it can initiate the process for removing voters. What neither Ohio nor any other state can do is to initiate the purge process solely because of a registered voter’s failure to vote.
But Ohio did. Six other states — Alaska, Montana, South Dakota, Tennessee, Georgia, and West Virginia — also consider voter inactivity when striking names from lists of registered voters.
CHRIS BURY: Do many of these folks not know that they have been purged?
DAN TOKAJI: Many of them will not realize that they’ve actually been removed from the rolls until they go to vote. We think that the biggest impact is going to be felt in urban areas, especially places where you’ve got less affluent voters.
ANDRE WASHINGTON: Ohio has removed infrequent voters off the voter roll.
Community organizer Andre Washington is spreading the word about Ohio’s voting rules at Triedstone Baptist Church, one of Columbus’s largest predominantly black churches. He has also joined the lawsuit against the secretary of state.
ANDRE WASHINGTON: Most of the people that they purged look like me and you.
CHRIS BURY: Washington fears Ohio’s purge practice will disenfranchise African-Americans who have not voted since 2008, when they helped elect the first black president.
So, after Sunday services, these volunteers helped congregants check the secretary of state’s public records to see if they’re still registered.
ANDRE WASHINGTON: It’s very important that these people that were purged get put back on the rolls so that they can exercise their right to vote. Because one of the jobs of the Secretary of State is to make sure that the ballot box is accessible to all citizens of Ohio. And make sure it’s easier for them to vote, not harder for them to vote.
CHRIS BURY: Does this policy disenfranchise poor African-Americans?
JON HUSTED: It actually has no race, gender, ethnicity component to it, because it treats every single voter exactly the same. And remember, if you receive one of these cards, it’s because you haven’t voted.
CHRIS BURY: You don’t think it’s an unfair burden, requiring people who haven’t voted for a while to make some kind of affirmative statement?
JON HUSTED: The law says it’s six years. The federal court agreement says it’s six years. I can understand people who have policy disagreements. If you wanna make it longer, change the law I’ll follow the law.
CHRIS BURY: Ohio’s purge of inactive voters is among several election rules under fierce legal attack here.
In May, a federal judge reinstated seven days of early voting when same day registration is also allowed, known as “golden week.” The republican state legislature eliminated it two years ago in a law signed by Ohio’s republican governor, John Kasich…reducing the number of early voting days to 28. But the judge found the early voting rollback discriminatory, because black voters are more likely than white voters to cast ballots early and in-person.
In June, another federal judge struck down laws allowing Ohio election officials to use trivial errors to disqualify absentee ballots and provisional ballots — the ones voters fill out when their registrations are challenged at polling places.
For example, a voter registered as “William Thomas Smith” could have his absentee ballot rejected, because he wrote the abbreviation “W -T- Smith” or “Bill Smith” on his envelope.
Civil rights groups had argued those rejections amounted to an unconstitutional literacy test.
CHRIS BURY: If you take these together, your opponents would argue that the intent is to suppress Democratic votes.
JON HUSTED: Well, that’s nonsense, and they know it is. Many of them have actually voted for the same policies that I am enacting. I adopt the same directives that my Democrat predecessor was using, but Democrats now call that voter suppression. It’s almost in the history of the world never been easier to vote anywhere than it is in Ohio today.
CHRIS BURY: Ever since the bitterly contested 2000 presidential election, where lawyers fought over Florida’s disputed ballots all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court — legal maneuvering over voting rules has intensified.
For example, 17 states have laws now in effect requiring photo identification in order to vote…all but two of those states led by republicans when the laws passed.
The number of lawsuits nationwide over voting practices and results has also dramatically increased — from only 80 cases in 1999 to more than 300 in 2014…a trend Ohio State University professor Edward Foley calls “the voting wars.”
EDWARD FOLEY: The voting wars is to use the tools of the legal system to try to get one side or the other a little bit of an advantage on Election Day in the counting of the ballots. And it can be through lawsuits, or it can be through creating new laws that you think might be favorable to your side.
CHRIS BURY: Foley says both parties are constantly fighting over what he calls “the margin of litigation” — legal skirmishes that could change outcomes in close races.
EDWARD FOLEY: In battleground states, the chances are that the election could be really close — 1,000 votes could tip a state. So the rules for how you count disputed ballots, really matter. Could determine who wins a state like Ohio.
CHRIS BURY: And the stakes are high here.
EDWARD FOLEY: Stakes are The White House.
CHRIS BURY: In the voter purge case, last month a federal judge ruled in favor of secretary of state Husted, saying: the purge process does not violate the National Voter Registration Act…and the public interest is being served by the procedure.
Lawyers representing Larry Harmon and other Ohio voters have appealed. And two weeks ago, the Department of Justice asked the court to reverse its decision. Knowing the stakes in Ohio, Harmon has already re-registered.
CHRIS BURY: Are you planning to vote in this November’s election?
LARRY HARMON: Yes, I am.