Ohio's voter purge may be legal, but it's also voter suppression

People rally in January outside of the Supreme Court in opposition to Ohio's voter roll purges.
People rally in January outside of the Supreme Court in opposition to Ohio's voter roll purges. Associated Press

The Supreme Court's ruling Monday to allow Ohio's purging of its voter rolls is difficult to dispute legally. While federal law prohibits removing citizens from voter rolls simply because they haven't voted, Ohio's purge is slightly different. The state sends out notices to those who failed to vote in a single election cycle. People who fail to respond and don't vote for another four years trigger an additional mechanism that results in their removal. That second prong, the Court said in a 5-4 ruling, was enough to pass legal muster.

But the ruling and the policy itself raise an old question on voting laws: What problem was Ohio trying to solve?

It wasn't about resources. Having inactive voters on the rolls isn't an urgent drain on the budget; in fact, there's a case to be made that it take more resources to aggressively pursue and remove those voters the way Ohio does.

It also wasn't about voter fraud. There have been no reported cases of Ohio voters who've moved elsewhere and attempted to vote twice. Even if there were a case or two, that's a tiny fraction of the more than 7,500 Ohio voters who went to the polls in 2016 and were turned away because they had been purged.

But the reason for Ohio's policy can be found in those 7,500 -- as well as the 144,000 people a 2016 Reuters study found were purged in Ohio's three largest counties. In those locales, neighborhoods with more poor, African-Americans were hit the hardest. "Voters have been struck from the rolls in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods at roughly twice the rate as in Republican neighborhoods," the study found.

It's no coincidence that 17 generally Republican states filed a brief with the court supporting Ohio's policy. Twelve Democratic-led states filed a brief in support of Larry Harmon, a software engineer who found he had been stricken from the rolls after failing to vote in one general and two midterm elections.

Simply put, the policy was a different way to execute an old GOP strategy: Give yourself a better chance to win elections by making it harder for your opponent's supporters to vote.

To be certain, there's value in states maintaining accurate voter lists. It's also mandated -- the Help America Vote Act of 2002 requires states to keep updated and accurate voter databases in the wake of the 2000 election. But if Ohio wants to clean up its voter lists, why start pursuing inactive voters after just two years instead of allowing at least two consecutive missed federal elections (as is done in North Carolina and other states) which better culls people without being aggressively punitive?

The answer, of course, is that Ohio's policy -- like Voter ID and early voting restrictions and other Republican-conceived policies and laws -- is not about the integrity of the vote, but the minimizing of some voters. It's marginalization, sanctioned or not, and it's wrong.