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Supreme Court Rules That Ohio May Purge Voters From Registration Rolls


The Supreme Court has issued a decision in a closely watched case about voter rolls, about who gets to keep their voter registration. This was decided by a 5-4 margin. The justices ruled in favor of Ohio officials who want the power to purge voters from the rolls partially for failure to vote in past elections. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg is the person you would want to help explain this, and she's in our studios. Hey there, Nina.


INSKEEP: OK. So who exactly was involved in this suit?

TOTENBERG: Well, it was brought by a guy named Larry Hammond, who didn't vote in the election with Obama and Governor Romney.

INSKEEP: This is 2012. OK.

TOTENBERG: 2012 didn't ring his chimes so he doesn't vote for them. And when he goes to vote a couple of years later, he's told he's not registered. And he's mad enough - what he says is, you know, I have the right not to vote. I didn't vote in that election. The state then said, we sent you a card, and the card said just check that you want to keep your registration. You didn't send it back. Well, it turns out only about 20 percent of those cards get sent back, and he doesn't even remember getting it. So he sued, saying that the state was violating his right to vote and the federal statute that says you can't be deprived of your right to vote for failure to...

INSKEEP: Show up.

TOTENBERG: Show up, essentially.

INSKEEP: OK. So this is - the question then is was the state too aggressive in getting people off of the voter rolls? Which is something that can have a lot of political complications or political implications because of the question of who ends up registered to vote in the next election.

TOTENBERG: Exactly. And so actually the state of Ohio was just on the verge of settling this case. It was sued originally by the Obama administration for violating a couple of federal voting laws, and it was about to settle the case. And then Trump got elected, and they changed their minds. And it was a Republican state government. They changed their minds. And now the Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Ohio by a 5-4 vote with the five justices in the majority, all Republican appointees, and the four justices in the minority, all Democratic appointees.

INSKEEP: OK. So why is it that Republicans and Democrats would have a different point of view about cases like this?

TOTENBERG: Well, what the court opinion said is that the statutes - and this was a statutory case - say you only can be thrown off the rolls solely for a failure to vote. And here, you didn't send back the card so that's not solely. And the minority said, it doesn't say that at all. It says you can't be thrown off the rolls for failure to vote. The practical significance of this is, this is probably the strictest voting purge law in the country. And you can see that there may possibly be a race to the bottom in certain states that don't want to have particularly poorer and minority people vote.

INSKEEP: OK. So that's it. Democrats feel they have more support in certain poor and minority groups and that more of their voters are going to be purged here. That's the fear among Democrats.

TOTENBERG: That's their fear.

INSKEEP: Republicans, are they admitting that that is part of their motivation here?

TOTENBERG: No. And there is a real problem with the voting rolls not being entirely up to date, and the states are required to do things. But there are other ways to do them. You can check the death certificates. You can check DMV. You can check property sales. You can check all kinds of things. And that's what one side says, the Democratic side, for all practical purposes. And the other side says, we could do whatever we think is simplest and cheapest and we think will work.

INSKEEP: And, in this case at least, the Republican argument, so to speak, won out in the Supreme Court. Nina, thanks very much.

TOTENBERG: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg on today's 5-4 ruling before the Supreme Court upholding Ohio's purge of its voter rolls. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nina Totenberg is NPR's award-winning legal affairs correspondent. Her reports air regularly on NPR's critically acclaimed newsmagazines All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.