Civic Groups Ask Courts to Stop Unlawful Voter Purging Practice

Release Date: 
May 25, 2016

(Columbus, OH) - Yesterday, a voting rights coalition asked the federal court to stop Ohio’s practice of removing properly registered voters from its voter registration list simply because they have not voted in recent elections.  The plaintiffs, who initiated the lawsuit in early April, are composed of civic groups and a longtime Ohioan who was disenfranchised by this process. 

Ohio assumes that individuals who opt not to vote within a two-year period have changed their address, and initiates a voter-removal process. The Ohio A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI), the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless (NEOCH), and Larry Harmon, represented by Demos and the ACLU of Ohio, made a motion for summary judgment to end these unlawful voter purges.

“Ohio is aggressively removing voters from its rolls for no reason other than their failure to vote on a frequent basis,” said Stuart Naifeh, senior counsel at Demos, a public policy organization based in New York. “Our democracy –and our federal law—does not tolerate singling out voters who miss an election and cancelling their registrations.” 

Federal law is very clear that voters, once registered at their address, must remain on the voter registration list as long as they are eligible to vote. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (“NVRA”) both specifically prohibits the cancellation of voter registrations for failing to vote and outlines a precise, lawful process to remove (or re-register) voters who have changed their addresses. As a result of Ohio’s practice, registered voters whose eligibility has not changed—voters who should rightly be registered and able to vote—have been removed from the rolls.  Many of these voters will not learn that they are no longer registered until they attempt to vote in the upcoming presidential election and are turned away from the polls.  

Ohio citizen Larry Harmon, who has already experienced this problem, was prevented from voting in Ohio’s 2015 statewide election. Although Mr. Harmon has lived at his current address for sixteen years, registered to vote many years ago, and voted in past presidential elections, he went to the polls for the 2015 state elections and learned for the first time that he had been removed from the voter list. He was not allowed to cast a ballot in that election.  

“I was upset by what was happening in Washington, D.C., in 2012, and didn’t vote in that year’s election,” said Mr. Harmon. “In 2015, I wanted to vote and I was disappointed to have my vote taken away from me, depriving me of the ability to vote my conscience, simply because I decided not to vote in certain elections.”

This illegal practice of removing properly registered voters who have not moved could prevent thousands of eligible citizens from voting in the upcoming presidential election. The state’s most recent “voter purge,” conducted in the summer of 2015, removed an estimated several hundred thousands of voters – most of whom had last voted in the high-turnout 2008 presidential election. Cuyahoga County alone cancelled the registrations of more than 40,000 voters based only on their failure to vote, and a disproportionate number of those removed were in poor neighborhoods and in communities of color.

“Our organization works hard to register voters in Ohio, and no effort was greater than our work in 2008,” said Andre Washington, president of the Ohio APRI chapter. “Ohio’s process has undone the voter-registration work that our Chapter achieved in 2008 and now we have to redouble our efforts to get those folks back on the voter rolls.” 

Homeless voters are particularly likely to suffer from the state’s unlawful process. Such individuals, who may not be able to get to the polls, are more likely to be removed from the voter registration list for failure to vote—even though there has been no change in their eligibility.

“A core aspect of NEOCH’s mission is voter engagement, and we do our best to bring homeless voters into the electoral process,” said Brian Davis, executive director of NEOCH. “Unfortunately, Ohio’s practice makes the barriers for people experiencing homelessness even more difficult to overcome.”

“Our investigation has shown that the state’s process has real effects on Ohio voters.  We have discovered that many people tried to vote in November 2015 and in the March 2016 Presidential Primary but were turned away,” said Paul Moke, a professor of political science at Wilmington College and a cooperating attorney for the ACLU of Ohio. (Institutional affiliation for identification purposes only.) “Ohio should be working to get more eligible voters registered, not to disenfranchise the voters who are already on the rolls.”

As part of yesterday's motion for summary judgment, the groups presented evidence to the court about the impact of the state’s illegal process. The court’s decision, which is expected this summer, will determine whether many of Ohio’s eligible citizens will be permitted to vote in this November’s presidential election.