U.S. Justice Department Reverses Stance on Ohio's 'Voter Purge' Policy

U.S. Justice Department Reverses Stance on Ohio's 'Voter Purge' Policy
Before the U.S. Supreme Court could get its hands on the case, the U.S. Department of Justice has intervened on Ohio's "voter purge" policy. Reversing a position from the Obama administration, the DOJ has sided with Secretary of State Jon Husted and his office's formal removal of registered voters from the state's database.

First, let's review our previous coverage. We learned last year that Husted's office had actively scrubbed tens of thousands of registered Ohio voters from the rolls. The rationale was convoluted, insisting for the most part that those voters had either failed to show up at the polls in recent years or failed to confirm their home addresses. Some were legit: People die and people move out of Ohio, and their names should indeed be dropped from the database. Other explanations were less clear. The total extent of the purge is unknown, even after an Associated Press investigation into the matter; state officials point out that this has been business-as-usual for years.

The concern is that some — possibly many — of those voters were still Ohio residents and otherwise eligible to vote. The lack of transparency has driven voter advocacy groups to rally against the policy and push back in court.

A federal judge ruled last fall that the policy was unconstitutional, citing violations of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act. Thousands of voters who had been purged from the state database were allowed to vote in the November 2016 election.

But in what seems to be a rare move, the U.S. Department of Justice filed an amicus brief yesterday that reverses its position on the matter. The DOJ, now under the purview of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, posits that Ohio is not deleting voter registration information willy-nilly; “Registrants are sent a notice because of that initial failure, but they are not removed unless they fail to respond and fail to vote for the additional period,” according to the brief.

The new position is not a binding order or anything; the U.S. Supreme Court still intends to hear this case. Nonetheless, seeing the DOJ insert itself into what are otherwise ongoing legal proceedings is unexpected.

Here, the Washington Post presents a view that the only variable in this case is the leadership of the DOJ.

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, called the Ohio purges “a critical voting rights case” and said the department’s reversal is “the latest example of an agency whose leadership has lost its moral compass.”

“The law hasn’t changed since the department accurately told the court that Ohio’s voter purge was unlawful,” Clarke said in a statement. “The facts haven’t changed. Only the leadership of the department has changed. The Justice Department’s latest action opens the door for wide-scale unlawful purging of the voter registration rolls across our country.”

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Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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