In the latest court victory for voting rights, a federal appeals panel on Friday ruled against Ohio's controversial procedure for removing inactive voters from the rolls. The decision could give a modest boost to Hillary Clinton in a crucial swing state.
By 2-1, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit reversed a lower court ruling that had upheld Ohio's procedure. The appeals court did not explicitly order a stop to the system, but sent the case back to the lower court to decide on a remedy.
At issue was Ohio's "Supplemental Procedure," in which voters are removed from the rolls if they haven't voted in the last three national elections — including midterms — or in any state or local elections in between, and then don't respond to a letter asking them to confirm their address. It could lead to someone who voted in the historic 2008 presidential election, but sat out 2012 and all of the non-presidential elections in the interim, being removed, even if they planned to vote this fall.
All states take measures to clean up their voter rolls, which tend to be littered with inaccuracies.
But voting rights groups alleged that Ohio's system, administered by Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, is unusually restrictive and violates the National Voter Registration Act (1993), which aims to make voter registration as easy as possible. The plaintiffs want Husted stopped from using the process, and they want voters who were removed from the rolls to be reinstated.
Husted has said the Supplemental Procedure is legal and has been used for over two decades by Democrats and Republicans.
A Reuters analysis from June found that in the state's three largest counties, which include the cities of Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Columbus, at least 144,000 voters had been removed. And it found that voters in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods were removed at around twice the rate of voters in Republican-leaning neighborhoods. The difference is likely down to the fact that Republican voters tend to turn out for midterm elections at a higher rate than Democratic ones.
"We are gratified by the court's recognition that voters do not become ineligible simply because they do not vote in every election," said Stuart Naifeh, senior counsel at Demos and the lawyer who argued the appeal for the plaintiffs. "Systematically preventing eligible Americans from exercising their right to vote, as Ohio has done, undermines public confidence in the integrity of the electoral process."
One of the judges who ruled against Ohio, Judge Julia Smith Gibbons, was appointed by President George W. Bush, while the other, Judge Eric Clay, was appointed by President Bill Clinton. The dissenting judge, Judge Eugene Siler, was appointed by President George H. W. Bush.
The fight over the voter rolls is just one of several voting issues that have flared in Ohio in advance of the election, where the state also hosts a pivotal Senate race. In 2014, Husted and the Republican state legislature cut early voting opportunities and eliminated the period when voters could register and vote on the same day. Both methods of voting are used disproportionately by African-American voters.
Many of the early voting cuts were restored by courts, but the elimination of same-day voter registration was allowed to stand.
Several restrictive voting laws in other states — including Texas and Wisconsin's strict voter ID laws and North Carolina's sweeping voting law — have been blocked or softened by the courts in recent months.