Voter button (189320)
Credit: Wikipedia

Civil rights groups argue that when Ohio purged names of nonvoters, it violated federal law. Ohio counters that it is purging names to prevent voter fraud. Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear this troubling voting rights case.

When Larry Harmon tried to vote in 2015, he discovered his name had been purged from the voting records. Although Harmon has lived in the same home for more than 16 years, Ohio removed him from the voting lists. He had chosen not to vote in 2009 and 2010, and he had not returned a post card notice asking if he were a resident. Based on Ohio law, Harmon and thousands of other registered voters were then unknowingly purged from voting lists. He was turned away at the polls.

Harmon, along with the A. Philip Randolph Institute and the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, filed a lawsuit seeking to stop Ohio from removing the names of registered voters from voter rolls. They argued that purging the names was a violation of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. They demanded Ohio reinstate otherwise eligible voters who were improperly removed from the rolls pursuant to the Supplemental Process or to count provisional ballots cast by such persons.

There is no law against not voting, and there should not be a punishment, say lawyers with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Americans have a right to not vote. The lower court agreed, ruling Ohio used a voter’s failure to vote as the “trigger” for sending a confirmation notice to that voter, meaning it is indeed a failure to vote or voter inactivity that begins the purging process.

The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 and the Help America Vote Act of 2002 were intended to increase voter participation by making it easier to register to vote. These laws led to more voter registration outlets, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles. The NVRA and HAVA also prevent states from removing names in a manner that is discriminatory. Moreover, NVRA and HAVA specifically say that states cannot remove names “from the official list of voters registered to vote in an election for federal office by reason of the person’s failure to vote.”

However, Ohio countered that states must maintain accurate records. In the lower court, Jon Husted, Ohio secretary of state, argued that voter names are not removed for failing to vote. They are removed for failing to respond to a written notice, and then not voting in two federal elections. Ohio assumes the person has moved or died and the name is purged to prevent voter fraud and to keep up-to-date voting records.

Former Attorney General Eric Holder, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights filed briefs supporting Harmon and the A. Philip Randolph Institute. Georgia and several other “red states” filed briefs in support of Ohio. This case is the second voting rights case the Supreme Court will hear this term.

The A. Philip Randolph Institute has been “supporting voting rights for decades,” says Andre Washington, Ohio State president of APRI. APRI was founded by A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979), a Black labor leader and civil rights activist, and Bayard Rustin (1912-1987), a Black labor strategist and civil rights organizer. The Supreme Court’s decision in Husted v. Harmon is expected by June.

Gloria J. Browne-Marshall is a U.S. Supreme Court syndicated columnist, associate professor at John Jay College and author of several books, including “The Voting Rights War.”