WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court handed Republicans a major victory Monday when justices upheld an Ohio law that allows election officials to remove voters from the rolls if they have neither voted during a six-year span nor responded to notices mailed by elections boards.

In a 5-4 decision Monday, Justice Samuel Alito sided with Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and Secretary of State Jon Husted by ruling Ohio’s system does not violate federal laws approved by Congress in 1993 and 2002.

“We have no authority to second-guess Congress or to decide whether (the 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.”

The justices overruled a 2016 decision by a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the Ohio system violated federal law in a way critics charged works against low-income voters.

DeWine and Husted, the Republican nominees for governor and lieutenant governor respectively, both hailed the ruling, with Husted saying it was “a victory for election integrity and a defeat for those who use the federal court system to make election law across the country.”

The decision could emerge as a major election issue this year in the race between DeWine and Democratic gubernatorial nominee Rich Cordray, who said “the right to vote is vital to our democracy. We need to focus on making the right to vote more accessible to Ohioans, not on taking it away.”

Joining Alito to form the majority were Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justices Clarence Thomas, Neil Gorsuch and Anthony Kennedy. Justices Stephen Breyer, Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg dissented.

Sotomayor wrote that Congress passed the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 “against the backdrop of substantial efforts by states to disenfranchise low-income and minority voters, including programs that purged eligible voters from registration lists because they failed to vote in prior elections.”

“The court errs in ignoring this history and distorting the statutory text to arrive at a conclusion that not only is contrary to the plain language of the (1993 law) but also contradicts the essential purposes of the statute, ultimately sanctioning the very purging that Congress expressly sought to protect against,” she wrote.

That prompted a stinging response from Alito who wrote that Sotomayor’s dissent “says nothing about what is relevant in this case — namely the language" of the 1993 federal law. He described as “misconceived” her assertion that minority and low-income voters would be disenfranchised.

Alito’s ruling provoked sharp criticism from Ohio Democrats. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, a former secretary of state, said the “decision empowers Ohio to further strip away the right to vote for thousands of Ohioans, threatening the integrity of our state’s election process.”

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Niles, warned that Husted “has been given the all-clear to continue purging thousands of Ohioans from the voter rolls.”

But Ohio Republican Chair Jane Timken tweeted, "As #SCOTUS majority notes in today’s decision, #Ohio has not violated the law. In fact, the state’s removal process follows the law to the letter."

The Ohio law provides what the state considers a housekeeping device to determine if a voter's information is still accurate. If a voter doesn’t cast a ballot for two years, he or she receives a notice from their county board of elections checking if they still live there.
If they don't reply, they get a variety of mailings over the ensuing four years, such as requests for absentee ballots, a change of address card, and notice on polling sites.

If the voter responds to any of those notices — or votes even once during those four years — they remain registered. If elections officials don't hear from a voter in the six-year period — no votes, no response to mailings — their name is purged from the list of eligible voters. The voter can register again to regain eligibility.

“It is undisputed that Ohio does not remove a registrant on change-of-residence grounds unless the registrant is sent and fails to mail back a return card and then fails to vote for an additional four years,” Alito wrote.

The procedure has been the same for years, under both GOP and Democratic secretaries of state.

State Rep. Kathleen Clyde of Kent, the Democrat running for secretary of state, said she was disappointed in the ruling and called on Husted to “leave eligible voters on the rolls and only remove people for legitimate reasons such as death or moving out of state.”

"Justice Alito’s opinion only holds that federal law allows this purging, it does not suggest that federal law requires it nor that it is good policy,” she said. “Under this decision, whether or not to purge is left to the states."

State Sen. Frank LaRose, of Hudson, the Republican running against Clyde, said, “Maintaining accurate and up-to-date voter rolls is critical to ensuring the integrity and efficiency of our elections ... By working with the bipartisan county boards of election we can balance the responsibility to maintain accurate voter rolls while still being fair to all voters.”

Husted's office did not immediately respond to questions about his office's plan to purge additional voters in the wake of the court's ruling.
In the 2016 election, the ACLU determined that roughly 7,500 people in Ohio showed up to vote only to discover that they had been purged.

And while those 7,500 voters would not have been enough to tip the presidential election from President Donald Trump to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, scores of Ohio elections have been decided by a handful of votes.

Rep. Joyce Beatty, a Columbus-area Democrat, said the “right to vote is not a ‘use it or lose it’ proposition. Rather, voting is a permanent guarantee that is essential to democracy.”

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