Purging voter rolls to suppress turnout

Last week, the U.S. Solicitor General took the unusual step of reinterpreting a 24-year-old federal statute specifically designed to convenience voting in order to switch sides in a pending Supreme Court case that centers on Ohio’s aggressive purging of voter rolls. The Trump Justice Department now sides with Ohio, which contends that not voting for six years — and then not responding to a single mailing asking the voter to confirm his or her registration — is sufficient to remove that person from state voter rolls.

That should cause no small amount of alarm. It’s part of a broader effort by the Trump administration to restrict voting rights under the guise of fighting fraud, which is nearly non-existent. The true purpose is to keep from the polls individuals who are less likely to support Republican candidates or causes. And it’s a potential stake through the heart of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also known as the “Motor Voter Act,” which was meant to expand, not shrink, the nation’s voter registration rolls.

Critics contend that there are too many individuals on voter rolls who should not be there, including people who moved away or perhaps even died, and that’s absolutely true. But it’s one thing to clean up the rolls in a surgical manner and quite another to make wholesale dumps that inevitably harm legitimate voters. The motor voter law specifically bans the practice of purging for failing to vote. The administration now contends that not responding to a mailed notice after failing to vote is another matter altogether.

The problem with that argument is one of magnitude. Finding the names of dead people on voter rolls sounds horrible, but it’s seldom of consequence and more akin to phone books failing to purge disconnected numbers. Might someone attempt to impersonate such an absent voter? There have been documented cases of voter impersonation, but there are a true rarity. Far more likely is for local residents to show up to vote in an election and find themselves erroneously purged, which is exactly what happened to Florida Gov. Rick Scott when he attempted to vote in 2012 only to find he’d been deleted from the registration lists because someone named Richard E. Scott who was born on the same day as the governor had died six years earlier.

If it can happen to a Republican governor, what about low-income individuals who change addresses far more frequently or who find it difficult to take the time and trouble to respond to a mailing from the local election board? No wonder civil rights groups including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund are upset with the Trump administration’s position and the prospect of seeing millions of people denied their fundamental right to vote simply because they failed to exercise it.

Republicans have been crusading to suppress votes for years, but no one has been more brazen or misleading about the effort than Donald Trump who has claimed that millions of people voted illegally last November without an iota of evidence to back it up, a truly extraordinary (and potentially de-legitimatizing) claim by an election’s winner. Members of the president’s voter integrity commission, which held its first official meeting just last month, have already come under fire for raising unwarranted public fears of voting fraud while completely ignoring the legitimate threat of computer hackers. Instead of claiming undocumented immigrants are stealing elections or pressuring states to more aggressively purge their rolls, they ought to be focused on the actual vulnerabilities in the system, including out of date voting machines.

Switching sides in an ongoing legal case is a rarity, even when control of the White House changes parties, but then Mr. Trump seems to have staffed the Justice Department with individuals with little interest in defending civil liberties, beginning with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who has been long antagonistic of voting rights. Never mind that federal courts have generally sided in favor of Motor Voter and against wholesale purging, including the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals which sided against Ohio in the Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute case (and thereby saved about 7,500 votes from being denied) that’s expected to be heard by the Supreme Court in the next term. It’s sad but no surprise that a Justice Department willing to deny crime-fighting funds to Baltimore at the height of a wave of gun violence on the grounds it’s too tolerant of undocumented immigrants is simply not going to have the moral fortitude to defend voting rights when there’s an opportunity to disenfranchise non-GOP voters.

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