The Supreme Court just gave a green light to racist voter purges. Their 5-4 decision to allow Ohio to take any voter off the rolls who hasn’t voted in two years and doesn’t return a postcard mailed to their house hands a dangerous new tool to the enemies of democracy in America.
Granted, efforts to exclude the poor and people of color from voting - from only allowing white male property owners to vote, to poll taxes and night riders, are nothing new in the United States. But this Supreme Court decision will enable Ohio to disenfranchise thousands of voters every year - other states are sure to follow.
This ruling by the court’s conservative majority with Neil Gorsuch, Trump’s newly minted Justice casting the deciding vote, comes despite the fact Congress explicitly protected all citizens’ right to vote - and not to vote - through the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), which took effect in 1995.
The NVRA and its later amendments clearly ban states from punishing infrequent voters by removing them from lists of registered voters, in light of the historical exclusion of low-income and minority voters through such measures.
Voting-rights advocates took Ohio to court to challenge the state’s purges of voting rolls, citing the NVRA, and won in lower courts. Unfortunately, the Court’s conservative justices have now ruled that since Ohio only used lack of voting as evidence that the person had moved, not as a punishment, these purges are allowed.
So now, according to the highest court in our land, Ohio can lawfully strip its citizens of their right to vote because they forgot to return a single prepaid postcard.
This ruling strained the patience of the Supreme Court’s more reasonable Justices. As Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted in her blistering dissent,
The Court errs in ignoring this history and distorting the statutory text to arrive at a conclusion that not only is contrary to the plain language of the NVRA but also contradicts the essential purposes of the statute, ultimately sanctioning the very purging that Congress expressly sought to protect against.
Congress enacted the NVRA against the backdrop of substantial efforts by States to disenfranchise low-income and minority voters, including programs that purged eligible voters from registration lists because they failed to vote.
This latest ruling means thousands of Ohioans will lose their right to vote, without ever knowing they have lost until they show up the polls on Election Day and are turned away, told they are no longer on the rolls.
A Targeted Attack
In the runup to the 2016 elections, Ohio purged more than more than 200,000 voters. That’s more than the razor-thin national margin that handed Donald Trump the presidency. Six states already have similar, though less extreme, voter-purge laws on the books, and many more may now follow suit.
Ohio’s claim that it uses voting to find out who has moved not only defies logic, it obscures the true motives of their suppressing voters. This is not a simple matter of keeping voting rolls up to date: it is a targeted attack, which disproportionately - and intentionally - harms low-income communities and people of color.
As Justice Sotomayor went on to note in her dissent, since 2012 “African-American-majority neighborhoods in downtown Cincinnati had 10 percent of their voters removed due to inactivity,” while only 4 percent of voters were removed in a suburban, majority-white neighborhood.
For one, we already have a simple way to check if someone might have moved: the USPS’s national change of address service. In addition, there are many, many reasons besides moving that a voter might miss elections, including the responsibilities of work and childcare or simply not seeing anyone on the ballot worth voting for.
Undermining the Vote
In 2016, the single largest group of voters weren’t Trump supporters or Clinton supporters: they were non-voters. The U.S. Elections Project estimates 100 million eligible voters did not turn out to vote in the 2016 election. That’s nearly half of all who are eligible to vote.
As Duke University professor Nancy MacLean points out in Democracy In Chains, her excellent study of the Koch brothers’ decades-long campaign to undermine the institutions of American democracy, our country’s billionaire class has long known their agenda has no chance in a fair fight. So they have pulled every trick in the book to suppress the vote, including by stacking the courts - all the way up to the Supreme Court - in their favor.
A Pew Research Survey found non-voters in the U.S. are younger, poorer and less white than frequent voters. These same people are significantly more likely to back progressive ideas and candidates. In other words, they are exactly who we need to engage to take back our government.
Something To Vote For
This year, more women and people of color are running than ever before. Up and down the ballot, inspiring progressive candidates are stepping up and running boldly progressive campaigns.
So finally, in many states and races, we do have something worth voting for - but if we aren’t careful, that won’t be enough. As a movement, we must fight voter suppression in the courts, in legislation and in the streets.
No matter what the Supreme Court rules, we can - and must - turn back this latest wave of voter suppression by registering voters, knocking on doors, driving our neighbors to the polls and by showing every politician who resorts to racist trickery to keep people from the polls that we are prepared to use our right to vote before we lose it.
If we are ever to have the kind of government we need - a government that puts people and planet over profits, that ensures workers earn decent wages and can afford housing, healthcare and a good education, ends mass incarceration and puts justice back in our criminal justice system - it will take every vote, and every voter. Especially infrequent ones.
We have to fight to ensure all voices are heard, especially those silenced for too long.