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Why Ohio’s way of purging voter rolls is at the Supreme Court

A case challenging the removal of hundreds of thousands of people from voter rolls in Ohio went to the Supreme Court on Wednesday. Special correspondent Karen Kasler of Ohio Public Radio reports what's at stake in the Buckeye State, and Jeffrey Brown talks with Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal about what the justices asked in the courtroom.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The Supreme Court heard arguments today in a case challenging the removal of hundreds of thousands of people from voter rolls in Ohio.

    In a moment, Jeffrey Brown will talk to Marcia Coyle of “The National Law Journal” about the questions the justices asked inside the court.

    But we begin with a report from Karen Kasler of PBS’ Ohio station ideastream about what’s at stake in the Buckeye State.

  • Karen Kasler:

     U.S. Army Sergeant Joseph Helle was in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, and in Afghanistan in 2009. But when he came home to Ohio 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.

  • Joseph Helle:

    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. And I was protecting it for others, but others weren’t able to protect it for me.

  • Karen Kasler:

    Helle, who is now the mayor of Oak Harbor, a small village near Toledo, has joined the coalition of mostly progressive-leaning groups opposing the two-pronged approach Ohio has to maintaining its voter rolls.

    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, and then doesn’t vote for another four years, the voter is removed from the voting rolls without further notice, whether the voter has moved or not.

    More than 4.6 million of those mailers 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.

    Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted says the two-year window and the mailers are part of the state’s legal obligation to remove the names of dead, imprisoned or otherwise ineligible voters.

  • Jon Husted:

    It’s 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.

  • Karen Kasler:

    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, and not just because they have moved.

  • Freda Levenson:

    Failing to vote is a very poor proxy for someone moving. 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.

  • Karen Kasler:

     But Husted says this method of voter roll maintenance has been in place Ohio since 1994, with virtually no problems, until the lawsuit was filed in 2016.

  • Jon Husted:

    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 we are implementing the laws in Ohio.

  • Karen Kasler:

    But the plaintiffs challenging the state, led by the AFL-CIO-affiliated A. Philip 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 had 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 the state of Ohio’s case. Seven states use a process similar to Ohio’s, so potentially millions of voters around the country will be affected by the court’s decision.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Karen Kasler in Columbus, Ohio.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Marcia Coyle covers the high court for The National Law Journal, and she was in the courtroom, as always, as the justices grappled with this potentially far-reaching dispute.

    Marcia, so, start with the argument against Ohio’s law. How was it made in court today? What were they looking — what laws were they looking at?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    OK, really, there are two laws that are at the heart of the dispute here, the National Voter Registration Act and the Help America Vote Act, which followed the national act.

    Both were designed and intended by Congress to make voting easy and accessible. The challengers to Ohio’s system represented by Paul Smith today argued basically the same argument that they had won in the lower court. Ohio is…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    They were the winning argument, right?

  • Marcia Coyle:

     Absolutely. Ohio is going wrong with its system for removing voters from its registration rolls.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So what kind of reception did they get from the justices?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Well, I would say the justices seem divided, but you never can really tell what’s going on until the decision comes out.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     To say that they’re divided is not a surprise, right? But go ahead.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    That’s right. It’s also the safe prediction, too.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Marcia Coyle:

     Justices Kennedy and Breyer, for example, they spoke to the concern that states have about maintaining the integrity of voter registration rolls.

    That is something that states have to do. Justice Breyer, for example, said, well, if you can’t use the fact that a voter hasn’t voted in two years to send out these notices, what can you do?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes. So, they’re in essence supporting the Ohio…

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Well, it sound that way. They’re raising one of the major concerns here of Ohio.

    And Mr. Smith said, well, Ohio is really only one of eight states that uses the process it uses. It’s the most aggressive. There are other ways.

    I learned through this case that there is a national change of address database that keeps track of changes of address that are sent to postal offices. And he said states can compare their registration addresses with that database. So, there was this concern about, how can states maintain integrity?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And where did the challengers get their support from?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Justices Sotomayor and Kagan, for example.

    Justice Sotomayor is concerned about what she said appears to be the disproportionate impact of Ohio’s process on cities and neighborhoods that have a high percentage of low-income workers, who work odd shifts, have difficulty getting to the polls, and also on minorities. She pointed out there have been a number of new voter restrictions put in place by states that create even more obstacles.

    Justice Kagan looked at Ohio’s argument that, no, it’s not the trigger, the two-year trigger, that removes voters. It’s the failure to respond to our confirmation notice that removes voters.

    She looked at it and said, what it looks like to me like is, failure to vote, failure to respond, failure to vote.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     Yes.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    And she didn’t quite agree that it was the cause of the removal, was the confirmation notice.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     So, briefly, there’s a lot on the docket for the court this year, this term, over voting rights and redistricting.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Yes, there is.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But the implication — political implications perhaps of this particular case?

  • Marcia Coyle:

    Well, as you probably know, Ohio is often a battleground state…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    I do, yes.

  • Marcia Coyle:

     … in national elections.

    So, the number of voters who are purged from the rolls could make a difference in a close election. So it’s being closely watched. And you’re right.

    The court has two partisan gerrymandering cases. It may well see another partisan gerrymandering case out of North Carolina. It continues to get racial gerrymandering cases, voter I.D. The whole election landscape is alive right now with these types of cases.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    All right, this is all to be continued.

    Marcia Coyle, thank you, as always.

  • Marcia Coyle:

    My pleasure, Jeff.

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