The antidemocratic majority on the US Supreme Court is openly at war with voting rights, and the justices have drawn new battle lines in the states as the 2018 midterms approach and as election officials prepare for the presidential contest in 2020. With its 5–4 ruling in the case of Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, the Court has given these officials the go-ahead to purge qualified voters from their registration lists.
Voter purging is an old tactic that politicians use to game the system. It works like this: If registered voters don’t cast a ballot in several elections and then fail to jump through bureaucratic hoops to maintain their active status, their names can be purged from voter lists. The next time these voters show up at the polls on Election Day, their names are nowhere to be found. In states that don’t permit same-day registration, these citizens have effectively been disenfranchised.
The A. Philip Randolph Institute and other civil-rights groups objected to this tactic and sued Ohio’s Republican secretary of state, Jon Husted, for employing it, arguing that the 1993 National Voter Registration Act was designed to prevent just such purges. Their challenge was rejected by the Supreme Court’s five GOP-appointed justices, including Donald Trump’s addition, Neil Gorsuch. This decision, by a Court that has already gutted key sections of the Voting Rights Act, appalled Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who argued in a scathing dissent that the majority’s embrace of voter purges “entirely ignores the history of voter suppression against which the NVRA was enacted and upholds a program that appears to further the very disenfranchisement of minority and low-income voters that Congress set out to eradicate.”
The threat of a new wave of voter suppression is real. Since 2011, according to Ohio Representative Joyce Beatty, Husted’s office has purged the registrations of more than 840,000 people identified as infrequent voters who hadn’t returned a postcard notice from the state. The Randolph Institute’s lawsuit put such purges on hold, but now that hold is off. Husted says he won’t do new purges for this year’s election, but the GOP nominee to replace him says he plans to utilize the process in a state that is likely to be a key battleground in 2020.
Aggressive purges remain an option for 2018 and 2020 in a number of states that now have purge laws—and in the Republican-controlled states that could adopt them. That’s why Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, describes the Husted decision as “a monumental setback for those who care about access to democracy in our country…. The Court’s decision could not come at a more important time,” Clarke adds. It “sends the wrong message to state officials, some of whom will likely interpret this decision as a green light to purge the rolls of legitimately registered voters.”