What Does SCOTUS' Voter Purge Ruling Mean For Already Disenfranchised Voters?

Navy veteran and software engineer Larry Harmon decided to sit out the 2012 presidential election. He said he was unimpressed by the qualifications of candidates, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. He also sat out the last two midterm elections in his state of Ohio. But in 2015 an initiative to legalize marijuana appeared on the ballot and he decided he wanted to cast his vote.

But when he showed up to his polling place, he was informed that he was no longer registered to do so. 

Harmon along with thousands of other Ohio voters found themselves in the same situation and after a recent Supreme Court ruling, there was nothing they could do about it.

On June 11, the Supreme Court struck down Harmon’s case, Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Instituteand passed the most stringent voter purge law in the country — one that very much could affect citizens who are already disenfranchised and disillusioned by the voting process in the United States. The 5-4 vote granted Ohio the right to expunge any registered voter from their roll if they had not voted in the last two years.  

In Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion, he wrote that it was not the court’s job, "to decide whether Ohio’s supplemental process is the ideal method for keeping its voting rolls up to date. The only question before us is whether it violates federal law. It does not." The state of Ohio argued that the use of purging voters who had not voted in two consecutive federal elections, or responded to a mail card informing the voter that they were no longer registered, was a way to update records, specifically of voters who had died or moved states. 

In stark contrast to the ruling, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her dissent, “It entirely ignores the history of voter suppression against which the NVRA was enacted and upholds a program that appears to further the very disenfranchisement of minority and low-income voters that Congress set out to eradicate." 

The NVRA, National Voter Registration Act, was passed in 1993 as a way to allow a person to register to vote when they received their driver’s license. President Bill Clinton called it, “a sign of a new vibrancy in our democracy.” The Act also forbid any state from removing a voter from their roll, “by reason of the person’s failure to vote.” Thus, weakening and blurring the lines of what power the NVRA has in American democracy. It's also worth mentioning that just 28 years before the NVRA was enacted, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 granted African-Americans the right to vote, specifically those in the Jim Crow South.

So, while it may appear through legislation that the process of voting has been made easier and more accessible, the stark reality is that voter suppression is still very real. And what might be even more troubling is just how limiting the protection of voting legislation is.

Jennifer Rivers, organizer and human rights activist was in Cleveland in 2016 working the Get out to Vote campaign and told Her Campus, “For anyone talking about laziness, incompetence, being cheap to get an ID, here’s the truth, voting in this country is virtually impossible for people of color and the poor.”

She recounts a story of meeting a man who was unable to get an ID and thus not able to vote. 

“I remember talking to a man who could not afford to get an ID because it cost $30, and he would have to take time away from his work to get one, as well as he’d have to travel to get to his nearest DMV," she said. "He lived in a rural area outside of Cleveland. And in Ohio, you don’t necessarily need to have an ID to vote, but you need proof of an address.” 

The demise of democracy begins when we place hurdles in front of those already struggling to participate, when the reality is that we should be making it as simple and easy as possible.

As writer and attorney Mark Joseph Stern told Rolling Stone, "The Court's wrongheaded interpretation of the NVRA paves the way for targeted voter purges that disproportionately burden minority voters. The majority does not seem to care that it has blessed a practice that election officials will use to disenfranchise communities of color. It has shockingly little solicitude for their constitutional right to vote." 

The use of placing barriers that make it virtually impossible for minorities and disenfranchised individuals to vote, it's strategic and purposeful, and the Republican party is known for doing just that. By passing and championing legislation like the recent Supreme Court ruling, that requires individuals to re-register to vote, provide an ID or proof of address, requires funds and time - two things not everyone has. Two things that define a disenfranchised voter. 

But Republicans counter that argument by saying it limits voter fraud and ensures a safer election. John Longhouser, a former general in the US Army agrees. 

Longhouser told Her Campus, “Voting is a privilege and a responsibility. Not a benefit handed out for citizens who vote when they view it as a protest. Vote in every election. Understand the issues. Vote to preserve the freedom we all enjoy and guarantee the prosperity for all. If voting is a mechanism to voice a selfish opinion, go vote somewhere else. “

So, if the argument that voter fraud is why every voter needs proof of identification, the issue must be a large problem. But is it?

The most recent study by the US Elections Project, shows that of the 834,065,926 votes casted between 2000 and 2014, only 35 votes were credible allegations of fraud. 

So, with a simple fact check, voter fraud doesn't really prove to be a viable threat to democracy, but the recent Supreme Court decision does exacerbate the threat and impending issue of voter apathy. Voter apathy is a problem, and specifically within communities of color and communities that feel their voices are not being heard. 

But the underlying cause of any form of apathy stems from the lack of feeling heard or understood. So, when politicians make it harder for the very constituent’s they hope will elect them to support them, with their vote, it’s clear what candidates want what votes and from what groups of people. 

"I’d also argue that the current two-party system is also creating voter apathy, as well as big money in politics," Rivers said. "If you’re a person of color or poor, why would you lose money at your job by taking time off to get an ID and find your paperwork with your name and address, miss precious family time, to vote for candidate(s) who don’t understand your situation, nor see the need to fix it. Voting is a human right, people fought and bled for it, and it’s time to broaden access and really hear what the people want."

The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU released a statement following Monday’s ruling that included, “Once registered, a voter should not be disenfranchised so long as the voter remains eligible to vote. That basic principle is one that should be jealously guarded in our democracy regardless of one’s political persuasion.” 

The ACLU, like many other anti-voter suppression organizations, fights legislation and politicians who seek to make it harder for American’s to vote. They along with the Davis Wright Tremaine firm in Indiana helped block legislation that could kick voters off rolls immediately and without notice, based on flawed second-hand data. 

And while this is a small victory for the state of Indiana, Monday’s Supreme Court decision, "is a setback for voting rights in America and devastating for the thousands of Ohio voters who will show up at the polls only to learn that they have been purged and barred from casting a ballot,” according to the ACLU.

Rivers, who volunteers with organizations like Get out to Vote, hopes that obstacles like voter ID laws and proof of residency will be a thing of the past, but for now, she hopes that this new legislation will be a wake-up call for any and everyone. And that means if you can vote, vote for candidates who are making voting and education on who is running, more accessible. 

"Just because you don’t experience voter suppression doesn’t mean it isn’t real," Rivers said. "Today’s court case from the Supreme Court is truly unacceptable. It’s time to make voting easier, not harder."

To learn more about where you can register to vote and your voting status, you can go here