The Supreme Court upheld Ohio's system for purging inactive voters from the rolls — a decision that could lead other states to implement its aggressive procedure that can be triggered after a person fails to vote in one federal election.
Justice Samuel Alito wrote Monday's 5–4 decision for the court, which was split along ideological lines.
Under Ohio's system, voters who do not vote in a two-year period are sent a notice from the state. If they do not return the notice and then fail to vote for the next four years, their voter registration is canceled.
The Supreme Court held that the state's process did not violate federal law.
Ohio had argued that its process was based on a provision of the National Voter Registration Act that allows states to remove people from voting rolls based on the grounds that they moved.
The A. Philip Randolph Institute, which sued the state, argued that the state, in fact, violated a different provision — which says that a person cannot be removed from voter rolls simply for failing to vote.
The court ruled that the state only uses the failure to vote "as a rough way of identifying voters who may have moved," but that it actually begins the removal process by sending "a preaddressed, postage prepaid card to these individuals asking them to verify that they still reside at the same address."
The court rejected the challengers' argument that Ohio's system violates the "Failure-to-Vote Clause." The clause, Alito wrote, "simply forbids the use of nonvoting as the sole criterion for removing a registrant, and Ohio does not use it that way."
Justice Stephen Breyer summed up the dissenting justices' view that Monday's decision was an exercise in circular reasoning.
"Ohio, of course, says that it has a ground for believing that those persons they remove from the rolls have, in fact, changed their address, but the ground is the fact that the person did not vote — the very thing that the Failure- to-Vote Clause forbids Ohio to use as a basis for removing a registered voter from the registration roll," Breyer wrote on behalf of all four dissenting justices.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor also wrote a separate dissent, noting her agreement with Breyer, but adding a focus on how she believed the court's opinion runs counter to the purpose of the National Voter Registration Act.
The court's majority, she wrote, "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."
It was this response that led Alito to his most dismissive remark in his opinion, stating that Sotomayor's dissent "says nothing about what is relevant in this case — namely, the language of the NVRA."
Paul Smith, who argued the case in January on behalf of the challengers to Ohio's law, called the decision "a setback for voting rights nationwide" in a statement.
"Our democracy weakens when states are permitted to take actions that discourage voter participation," Smith continued. "By constructing obstacles that make voting more difficult, Ohio is sending the wrong message to its citizens."
Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, however, criticized the challenge — and urged other states to take up Ohio's system.
"Today’s decision is a victory for election integrity, and a defeat for those who use the federal court system to make election law across the country," Husted, currently running to be Ohio's next lieutenant governor, said. "This decision is validation of Ohio’s efforts to clean up the voter rolls and now with the blessing nation’s highest court, it can serve as a model for other states to use."