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'Setback for Voting Rights': Supreme Court Upholds Ohio's Voter-Purge Process

The ruling, Justice Sotomayor writes in dissent, "entirely ignores the history of voter suppression against which the NVRA was enacted."

Protesters gather during a rally held by the group Common Cause in front of the U.S. Supreme Court January 10, 2018 in Washington, DC.

Protesters gather during a rally held by the group Common Cause in front of the U.S. Supreme Court January 10, 2018 in Washington, D.C. Voting rights activists rallied to oppose voter roll purges as the Supreme Court hears oral arguments in Husted v. A Philip Randolph Institute, a challenge to Ohio's voter roll purges. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Civil rights groups are calling the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling on Monday upholding Ohio's practice of purging voters from the rolls "a setback for voting rights."

In the 5-4 decision (pdf), the court found that the state, which drops people from the rolls if they don't vote and then don't respond to notices to confirm their residency, does not violate the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).

That process, says advocacy group Demos, knocked hundreds of thousands of infrequent voting Ohioans off the rolls in 2015 alone.

"A state violates the failure-to-vote clause only if it removes registrants for no reason other than their failure to vote," Justice Samuel Alito, writing the majority opinion, argued.

According to Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, however, the decision not only "gets the law wrong," but also "sends the wrong message to state officials."

The ruling, she argued, "ignores the long history of purge programs in our country which have been used to unfairly and disproportionately target minority voters."

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who joined with the liberal justices in dissenting and also wrote a separate dissenting opinion, spoke to that past as well.

She argued that the ruling from the conservative justices "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."

She added: "Communities that are disproportionately affected by unnecessarily harsh registration laws should not tolerate efforts to marginalize their influence in the political process, nor should allies who recognize blatant unfairness stand idly by. Today's decision forces these communities and their allies to be even more proactive and vigilant in holding their states accountable and working to dismantle the obstacles they face in exercising the fundamental right to vote."

The ruling was also rebuked by Chair of the Patriotic Millionaires Morris Pearl, who called it "the latest blow in a war over the fate of our democracy. On one side, the people. On the other, the conservative officials and wealthy oligarchs who wants more money in politics and less voting."

Left-leaning lawmakers weighed in as well:

Stuart Naifeh, senior counsel at Demos, which led the legal team challenging Ohio's voter-removing practice, cautioned against other states seeing the ruling as green light to engage in similar voter purging efforts.

"The fight does not stop here," he declared. "If states take today's decision as a sign that they can be even more reckless and kick eligible voters off the rolls, we will fight back in the courts, the legislatures, and with our community partners across the country."

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