COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Ohio’s process for maintaining its voter rolls wrongfully removes eligible people, a federal appeals court ruled Friday as the perennial presidential battleground state prepares for the fall election.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the New York-based public advocacy group Demos sued Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted in April, claiming the state illegally drops registered voters from its registration list based on their failure to vote in recent elections.
A three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati found Ohio’s process violates the National Voter Registration Act and the Help America Vote Act.
The decision sends the case back to the lower court, which must establish a process for either restoring purged voters to the rolls or allowing them to vote provisionally and having all those votes count.
The ACLU’s Mike Brickner said time is of the essence, with the general election less than seven weeks away and early voting beginning even sooner.
“It’s important that we have some finality here, so that poll workers, voters and election officials all know what the rules are in advance of Election Day,” he said.
It wasn’t clear exactly how many currently active voters have been affected by the purge process, but estimates are between tens and hundreds of thousands.
Ohio has used the so-called “supplemental process” for more than 20 years, says Husted, the state’s elections chief. He has said it is constitutional and fully complies with state and federal laws.
“Ohio is no outlier; many other States read the Act the same way and use processes like, or more expansive than, Ohio’s,” the state’s attorneys told the appeals court in a brief.
The 6th Circuit sided with the groups’ allegations that the state’s maintenance of the voter rolls “has led to, and threatens to continue to result in, the disenfranchisement of eligible Ohio voters.”
Husted “has cancelled the registrations of voters in part because of their failure to respond to a notice mailed to their registered address, including notices sent to homeless voters who frequently cannot receive mail reliably,” the lawsuit said.
Last year in Democratic-leaning Cuyahoga County, home to Cleveland, about 40,000 individuals were illegally purged from voter rolls for choosing not to vote, with a disproportionate number from poor and minority neighborhoods, according to the Ohio chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, a labor group representing minorities.
A federal judge rejected the groups’ complaint in June after finding their claims lacked merit. The Justice Department had urged the appeals court to reverse the district judge’s decision.
In a July brief, the department said federal law requires a voter’s removal when the voter becomes ineligible because of a change of residence, but only after the state confirms the move.