Trump Administration Reverses DOJ's Stance on Ohio's Voter Purge

by | August 9, 2017

By Jessica Wehrman

The U.S. Justice Department -- which last year backed civil rights groups in a court case over Ohio's decision to remove thousands of inactive voters from Ohio voter rolls -- is now taking a different tack under the administration of President Donald Trump.

The department filed a 61 -- page brief Monday with the U.S. Supreme Court siding with Ohio's decision to purge the voters, flipping their position just months before the nation's high court will take up the case. The administration of President Barack Obama had opposed Ohio's action.

The case, Husted vs Ohio A. Philip Randolph Institute, focuses on the state's supplemental process, which cancels voter registrations even if the voter in question has not moved and is still eligible to vote. Here's how it works: If a voter has not voted in two years, they are sent a notice asking to confirm their registration. If the voter does not respond, nor cast a ballot within the four years after that, they're removed from the rolls.

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted's office has removed 465,000 deceased voters and 1.3 million duplicate registrations from Ohio's voter rolls in recent years.

The supplemental process was struck down in September 2016 by the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which ruled that the Ohio process violates the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 by removing voters from the rolls simply because they have not voted.

In the brief Monday, the Justice Department argued that Ohio gives voters opportunity to respond and remain on the rolls. They argue that federal law does not prohibit states from contacting registered voters who have failed to vote to determine if they're still living at the same address.

Mike Brickner, a senior policy director for the ACLU in Ohio, called the government's decision to support Ohio "a very disappointing reversal."

He said during the injunction that followed the 6th Circuit's 2016 ruling, 7,500 people who might've been kicked off the rolls were able to vote.

He said the Justice Department over the past 20 years have defended voter rights. "This is a major about-face for the Department of Justice after decades of consistently weighing in on cases that have to do with the National Voter Registration Act and whether or not voters can be purged from the voter rolls," he said.

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Niles, in a statement, said the Justice Department "should be dedicated to preserving and expanding the right of every eligible citizen to vote." He called the department's decision to back the state "alarming."

Husted, meanwhile, defended the process, saying it's been in place in both GOP and Democrat administrations.

"This case is about maintaining the integrity of our elections, something that will be harder to do if elections officials are not able to properly maintain the voter rolls," he said.

The Supreme Court will take up the case after it returns in October.

(c)2017 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)