The Ohio voter purge — will Kentucky be next?

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On June 11, the US Supreme Court upheld the state of Ohio’s voter purge system of voters who have not cast ballots in recent elections or responded to mailed notices. In this system, voters are flagged if they miss a single federal election, and missing subsequent elections can result in their names being removed from voter rolls.

Upon missing an election, registered voters are sent a notice in the mail. Cards like this are easy to miss. They may be disregarded or forgotten about in a pile of coupons and junk mail. But Ohio is taking any non-response as an indication that the person has moved or died.

The cards, as it turns out, were vital to the Court upholding Ohio’s voter purge system. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) states that voters can’t be removed from rolls “solely” by reason of not voting. Ohio’s system was not found to be in violation of this, as it removes people for not voting and not returning a postcard.

While maintaining accurate voter rolls is important, the process by which Ohio is pursuing their voter purge is harmful. Much of the support for this sort of action is based on the voter fraud myth (or lie). Voter fraud is next to non-existent, yet election after election it gets brought up as justification for actions which cause massive levels of disenfranchisement.d

What will be the results of the voter purge?

As a result of this decision to uphold Ohio’s voter purge system, thousands of people in Ohio will be disenfranchised. The method in which this happens will affect mostly lower income, minority, disabled, and veteran citizens who vote less frequently, and people such as renters who are more likely to move.

Beyond Ohio, there is concern that this will lead to more aggressive voter purge systems or other tactics to suppress the vote of certain groups. Voter purges have been tried before, and are almost always error prone disasters. And purges are just one in a long line of methods used by those in power to disenfranchise voters. Still, a dozen other states have already said they would adopt similar systems if Ohio won the case.

With Justice Kennedy’s retirement, the Supreme Court itself is likely to make these issues worse, using this case as precedent in future rulings. Kennedy hasn’t exactly been a defender of democracy, helping to legitimize voter purges and partisan gerrymandering, gutting the Voting Rights Act, and even authoring the majority opinion on Citizens United. Still, any person nominated by our President and confirmed by our Senate will likely be much worse.

Related stories on Forward Kentucky

IMPORTANT – Did you get this card in the mail?

Grimes settles voter rolls lawsuit; what it means for KY

Voting with disabilities? It’s tough in the Bluegrass

Early Voting Bills Are a Step In the Right Direction

What can we do?

There are several steps which can be taken going forward to help right this wrong. The most direct is a bill currently in the Senate which would restore people’s right to vote if they have been purged from voter rolls. The bill is co-sponsored by Sherrod Brown, a former Ohio Secretary of State, who’s probably taking this ruling personally. This is not likely to go anywhere in the current Congress, but it’s good to see action being taken.

Another helpful policy for combating this sort of purge is universal, automatic voter registration. By registering voters and updating information when people do things like renew their driver’s license, we could maintain accurate information without the need to purge rolls. Automatic registration (AR) increases the number of registered voters, cleans up rolls, reduces the risk of fraud, and is both easier and cheaper. About a dozen states have already adopted AR so far, and Kentuckyd should follow their lead.

Kentucky should also make it easier to vote. Many people choose not to vote. But for many others, it’s less of a choice. There are real barriers preventing them from casting a ballot. In Kentucky, with low turnout among those with disabilities, shorter voting hours, and no early voting, missing an election through no fault of your own is actually quite common.

Simply voting, however, may not be enough. Purging people from voter rolls for missing an election is just one in a long line of voter suppression tactics. If we conquer this problem, those who seek to limit the number of voters will only move on to another scheme.

Because of this, perhaps the most important thing we can do is elect people to legislative and statewide offices who are totally committed to protecting and expanding the right to vote for everyone, and this almost certainly means electing as many Democrats as possible.

The most important thing we can do to protect the right to vote is elect people to office who are totally committed to protecting and expanding the right to vote for everyone – which usually means electing Democrats.Click To Tweet

This is especially true of the Secretary of State position. Secretary Grimes has stated clearly that voters will never be removed from rolls simply for not voting. However, she will be leaving her position next year due to term limits. We must ensure that whoever replaces her as our state’s chief election officer shares her commitment to democracy.

Expanding people’s ability to vote, both legally and practically, has always been a struggle, and once expanded, the franchise must be jealously guarded. Voting matters, and as has been said before, if it didn’t, people wouldn’t be trying so hard to stop others from doing it.

Democracy doesn’t work well when half the population is trying to stop the other half from voting. If we don’t guard our rights carefully, if we let people slowly but surely chisel away at them, before long, we may not be in a democracy at all.

Democracy doesn’t work well when half the population is trying to stop the other half from voting. If we don’t guard our rights carefully, before long, we may not be in a democracy at all.Click To Tweet

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Neal Turpin
Dr. Neal Turpin is a recent PhD graduate of the University of Louisville’s School of Urban and Public Affairs, where he focused on public policy and participation, democratic structures, and efficiency. He enjoys spending time with his wife, Sara, working out at the Southeast YMCA, where the two of them met, and teaching Sunday school at Buechel Park Baptist Church. Neal also has an appreciation for trivia, movie scores, and the Muppets.

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