On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled 5 to 4 to uphold Ohio’s program of canceling registrations of infrequent voters — a decision that history shows disproportionately strikes minority and low-income voters from the rolls. Under Ohio’s program, which a federal appeals court had struck down as violating the National Voter Registration Act, registered voters who don’t cast a ballot in two years are sent a notice asking them to confirm that they still reside at the same address. If they don’t respond, and then fail to vote in the next two federal elections, they are assumed to have moved to a different county and are excised from the rolls.
Ohio argued that it needed to clean up its voter rolls to account for people who had moved, and that its approach was a reasonable way to do that. But it is far from reasonable, because while only a small percentage of Americans move each year, far more decline to vote in any given election — meaning that failing to vote is a highly inaccurate way of determining that someone moved.
As Justice Stephen Breyer noted in his dissent, nationally, only about 4 percent of people move from one county to another in any given year. But many more people don’t vote. For example, in the 2014 midterm election, about 59 percent of registered voters in Ohio didn’t cast a ballot. In just one year, Ohio sent notices to 1.5 million voters under this program, about 20 percent of the state’s registered voters. Unless residents of Ohio are significantly more mobile than other Americans, there is no reasonable basis for assuming that so many voters there have moved out of their home county and should have their registrations canceled.
But that’s exactly what Ohio assumed. Thousands of voters who never moved were kicked off the rolls.