Larry Harmon got a surprise when he went to his Kent, Ohio, polling place for a 2015 local election: He was no longer registered and couldn’t vote. Election officials removed him from the rolls because he hadn’t voted since 2008 and didn’t respond to the notice they say they sent in 2011. The lawsuit he and two interest groups filed against Ohio is now part of a U.S. Supreme Court case that will shape the rights of thousands of people as the 2018 elections approach. The justices will decide how far states can go in purging their election databases of people who might have moved away. The case, set for argument Jan. 10, has become a proxy for the highly partisan fight over the country’s election rules. Republicans are calling for stepped-up efforts to prevent voter fraud, while Democrats say those moves are a thinly veiled campaign to stop liberals and minorities from casting ballots.
“The question of voter purges sits right at the center of voter suppression,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and a critic of purge efforts.
Nineteen states use voter inactivity in the process of purging their databases, though only a handful make non-voting as central as Ohio does. Rules in Georgia, Tennessee, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania are among those that could be affected by the case.
Ohio is perennially a key battleground state in presidential elections and has given its electoral votes to the eventual winner in 28 of the last 30 elections. Two-term Senator Sherrod Brown’s Ohio seat is among 26 that Democrats will be defending in the November election. Republicans will be defending only eight Senate seats.