Supreme Court upholds Ohio’s voter roll purge of infrequent voters

The U.S. Supreme Court began today with 25 cases yet to be decided over the next three weeks before the end of June. “The court is on pace to issue 48 percent of its opinions during June, the highest percentage in history, according to Adam Feldman, a scholar who runs the empiricalscotus.com website.” Get Ready for Some Blockbuster U.S. Supreme Court Rulings.

The court is racing toward the end of its nine-month term with some of its biggest cases still to be decided, led by the fight over President Donald Trump’s travel ban. The justices also will rule on partisan gerrymandering, voter purges, union fees, internet sales taxes, credit-card fees and cell-phone privacy.

This morning the Court issued its ruling in the voter purge case, Husted v. A Philip Randolph Institute (.pdf). Justice Alito writing for the majority in a 5-4 decision reversed the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The majority opinion holds that Ohio’s process follows subsection (d) of the National Voter Registration Act.

Ohio’s Supplemental Process follows subsection (d) to the letter. It is undisputed that Ohio does not remove a registrant on change-of-residence grounds unless the registrant is sent and fails to mail back a return card and then fails to vote for an additional four years.

Respondents argue (and the Sixth Circuit held) that, even if Ohio’s process complies with subsection (d), it nevertheless violates the Failure-to-Vote Clause—the clause that generally prohibits States from removing people from the rolls “by reason of [a] person’s failure to vote.” §20507(b)(2); see also §21083(a)(4)(A). Respondents point out that Ohio’s Supplemental Process uses a person’s failure to vote twice: once as the trigger for sending return cards and again as one of the requirements for removal. Respondents conclude that this use of nonvoting is illegal.

We reject this argument because the Failure-to-Vote Clause, both as originally enacted in the NVRA and as amended by HAVA, simply forbids the use of nonvoting as the sole criterion for removing a registrant, and Ohio does not use it that way. Instead, as permitted by subsection (d), Ohio removes registrants only if they have failed to vote and have failed to respond to a notice.

Which form of causation is required by the Failure-to- Vote Clause? We can readily rule out but-for causation. If “by reason of ” in the Failure-to-Vote Clause meant but-for causation, a State would violate the clause if the failure to vote played a necessary part in the removal of a name from the list. Burrage v. United States, 571 U. S. 204, 211 (2014). But the removal process expressly authorized by subsection (d) allows a State to remove a registrant if the registrant, in addition to failing to send back a return card, fails to vote during a period covering two general federal elections. So if the Failure-to-Vote Clause were read in this way, it would cannibalize subsection (d).

Interpreting the Failure-to-Vote Clause as incorporating a proximate cause requirement would lead to a similar problem … If a registrant, having failed to send back a return card, also fails to vote during the period covering the next two general federal elections, removal is the direct, foreseeable, and closely connected consequence.

By process of elimination, we are left with sole causation. This reading harmonizes the Failure-to-Vote Clause and subsection (d) because the latter provision does not authorize removal solely by reason of a person’s failure to vote. Instead, subsection (d) authorizes removal only if a registrant also fails to mail back a return card.

For these reasons, we conclude that the Failure-to-Vote Clause, as originally enacted, referred to sole causation. And when Congress enacted HAVA, it made this point explicit. It added to the Failure-to-Vote Clause itself an explanation of how it is to be read, i.e., in a way that does not contradict subsection (d). And in language that cannot be misunderstood, it reiterated what the clause means: “[R]egistrants who have not responded to a notice and who have not voted in 2 consecutive general elections for Fed-eral office shall be removed from the official list of eligible voters, except that no registrant may be removed solely by reason of a failure to vote.” §21083(a)(4)(A) (emphasis added). In this way, HAVA dispelled any doubt that a state removal program may use the failure to vote as a factor (but not the sole factor) in removing names from the list of registered voters.

That is exactly what Ohio’s Supplemental Process does.

It does not strike any registrant solely by reason of the failure to vote. Instead, as expressly permitted by federal law, it removes registrants only when they have failed to vote and have failed to respond to a change-of-residence notice.

Justice Alito Alito goes on to say that the dissenting justices have a policy disagreement, but that’s a matter for Congress.  It is not up to the justices to second-guess Congress or decide whether there is a better way to keep the voter roles up to date.

Fortunately, there is a policy solution to this voter roll purge of infrequent voters issue: universal (automatic) voter registration systems maintained by the states. Automatic Voter Registration:

AVR makes two transformative, yet simple, changes to voter registration: Eligible citizens who interact with government agencies are registered to vote or have their existing registration information updated unless they decline, and agencies transfer voter registration information electronically to election officials. These two changes create a seamless process that is more convenient and less error-prone for both voters and government officials. This policy boosts registration rates, cleans up the rolls, makes voting more convenient, and reduces the potential for voter fraud, all while lowering costs.

Twelve states and the District of Columbia have already approved automatic voter registration. It’s time for the rest of the nation to enact Automatic Voter Registration.AVR Enacted - April 2018 AVR Introduced - April 2018

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