By Jason Kander, President, Let America Vote
Joe Helle devoted six years of his life to the U.S. Army, serving in Iraq and Afghanistan as an airborne infantryman before returning home to Ohio in 2011. But when he headed to the polls to vote in a municipal election that fall, he wasn’t allowed to cast a ballot.
Because he’d been dropped from the voter rolls under Ohio’s unfair, unnecessary and undemocratic voter purge law. Helle was purged from the rolls because he didn’t vote during while serving overseas, and wasn’t home to respond to a letter sent to him by the state of Ohio.
“I broke down crying right there in the county elections office,” Helle told Let America Vote last year. “I’m not proud of it, but it’s true.”
(Since Ohio lacks same-day voter registration, he wasn’t allowed to cast a vote at all that day in 2011.)
Helle’s story of disenfranchisement is far from unique: at least 150,000 Ohioans and likely many more have seen their registrations canceled because they missed a few elections.
And that’s just one state. Voters across the country have been knocked off the rolls because of their voting records: Voter-purge methods like Ohio’s have been employed in Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and West Virginia in recent years. Georgia has employed a “use it or lose it” purge process to knock some 850,000 otherwise eligible voters of the rolls in recent years.
And now, in a stunning, wrongheaded decision handed down on Monday, a 5–4 majority on the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld those anti-democratic policies, overruling an appeals court decision and breaking with a long-standing, bipartisan interpretation of the relevant federal laws.
In the majority opinion handed down in Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, the Court’s conservative justices upheld Ohio’s voter purge program, holding that the state’s aggressive process for purging voters is permitted under federal law.
This decision will disenfranchise eligible American voters — in many instances veterans, people of color and low-income individuals — simply because they previously did not vote or faced obstacles to voting.
This opinion aligns with the argument made by attorneys for Ohio and the federal Department of Justice, who contend “use it or lose it” policies purge voters not because they failed to vote, but because they didn’t respond to a notice sent in the mail after they chose not to vote.
That’s a legal loophole plain and simple: since the law says you can’t disenfranchise voters for choosing not to vote, Ohio and the Trump administration have decided to disenfranchise voters for failing to check the mail.
As a legal argument, it also contradicts the federal government’s long-standing position on this issue, the plain meaning of the relevant federal statutes and, frankly, common sense.
Now eligible voters can be forced off the rolls for no good reason, silencing their voice in our democratic republic. Even if that was the intent of the federal law — which it’s not! — it would be wrong.
In her scathing dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote about the history of voter suppression in our country, stating “[the majority] 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.”
State elections officials should not look for reasons to disqualify eligible voters. They should not treat voters like criminal suspects. Rather, they should treat them like valued customers, and make the voting experience as simple and frictionless as possible.
All the more galling in this case was the Trump Administration’s shameful decision to literally switch sides as the case was being argued.
After standing with disenfranchised voters in opposition to the purge process during an earlier appeal, the Department of Justice last year flipped its argument 180 degrees, abandoning an interpretation of the National Voter Registration Act that had been in place since the George W. Bush administration to join Ohio at the defendant’s table.
It’s just one example of many in which the Trump Administration has directed the department to abandon voting-rights champions in the middle of the fight and side instead with anti-democracy, partisan politicians.
I served in the Army to defend Americans’ constitutional rights and freedoms, not to watch politicians take them away for narrow political advantage. So did Joe Helle. He got re-registered after that 2011 election, by the way, and now he’s the mayor of Oak Harbor, Ohio.
If administrators in Ohio, Georgia and elsewhere were really interested in cleaning up voter rolls and improving election security, they wouldn’t waste their time on voter purges that narrow the field of eligible voters. They’d enact policies like automatic voter registration, which achieves all those objectives while expanding access to the polls.
Unfortunately, the Supreme Court failed our democracy, and more eligible voters like Joe Helle could lose their franchise as a result. The message is clear: we can’t rely on this administration or the courts to protect voting rights in America. It’s up to us, and the power we wield at the ballot box.