A federal appeals court on Monday upheld a lower court’s decision to dismiss a lawsuit against the Philadelphia City Commissioners that tried to force the city to purge convicted felons from the voter rolls, using scathing language against a conservative group that brought the suit. Felons in Pennsylvania cannot vote while they are incarcerated, but are eligible to do so upon release. The American Civil Rights Union (ACRU), a conservative group that has pushed for more aggressive voting rights restrictions across the country, said felons should be removed from the voter rolls after incarceration and sued the city, alleging it was violating the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), which sets guidance for how states can purge their voter rolls. Judge C. Darnell Jones II of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, a George W. Bush appointment, dismissed the lawsuit last year.
In Monday’s stern and unanimous opinion, a three-judge panel for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit upheld that ruling, suggesting that the ACRU was contorting provisions in federal law for its legal argument.
“Contrary to the ACRU’s assertions,” judge Theodore McKee wrote for the court, the NVRA “places no affirmative obligations on states (or voting commissions) to remove voters from the rolls. As its text makes clear, NVRA was intended as a shield to protect the right to vote, not as a sword to pierce it.”
The decision is significant because NVRA has emerged as a key law in battles over voter registration. Conservatives, including some appointed to President Donald Trump’s commission to investigate voter fraud, argue that voter rolls have become too bloated and states are not purging aggressively enough.