How Ohio’s voter purge practices disproportionately affect minorities

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Passed with bipartisan support in 1993, the National Voter Registration Act was designed to protect and advance the most fundamental of our American rights: the right to vote. It mandates states can only remove voters’ names from registration rolls if that voter has become ineligible – and specifically prohibits states from removing voters for not voting.

You can imagine the confusion, then, when hundreds of thousands of Ohio voters in 2015 were abruptly purged from their home state’s registration rolls. Many of these voters, having last voted in 2008, turned up to the polls in November 2015 or 2016 only to be told they had to go home without casting a ballot.

{mosads}Beginning on Jan. 10, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Husted v. A Philip Randolph Institute, the case which will determine whether Ohio’s practice of purging voters is unconstitutional under the National Voter Registration Act. For eligible voters who are members of underrepresented communities, the Court’s decision will have particularly significant implications. It represents the difference between giving Latinos and all Americans a voice in our democracy, or upholding one more obstacle that prevents them from getting to the polls.

Here is how Ohio’s voter purge currently works: through a practice known as Supplemental Process, the Ohio County Board of Elections uses a registered voter’s failure to vote in a single election as evidence that the voter has moved. When that registrant has failed to vote for just a two-year period, the voter receives a notice in the mail; if the voter does not respond to the notice or vote in the subsequent four-year period, the voter’s name is removed from the registration rolls.

As a direct result of Ohio’s Supplemental Process, countless voters who remain fully eligible to vote are stripped of their most fundamental right.

Ohio’s mailed Confirmation Notice, which explains the steps voters must take to avoid removal from the rolls, is, of course, generally only provided in English. Meanwhile, 35 percent of Latinos in this country speak a language other than English at home.

This means that Latinos and other minorities for whom English is a second language are far more likely to find themselves kicked off the voter registration rolls with little explanation. They can add this to the list of circumstances that make it hard for minorities to vote, including hourly wage jobs with inflexible hours along with family responsibilities.

So far, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has sided against Ohio on this crucial voting rights case, issuing an injunction that ultimately allowed 7,500 Ohio voters who would have been denied their right to vote to cast a ballot in the 2016 election. But the state isn’t giving up on its fight to stifle democracy; Secretary of State Jon Husted is calling on the Supreme Court to overturn the Sixth Circuit’s decision.

We’ve already reached a point in American history at which voter turnout is dropping. Just 58 percent of Americans went to the polls during the 2016 election; in the 2014 midterms, that number was only 36.3 percent – the worst voter turnout in 72 years. And at present, there are 50 million eligible American citizens who are still not registered to vote.

But the right to vote is the cornerstone of American citizenship and the foundation from which our other rights follow. With Latinos making up nearly 18 percent of the U.S. population, shouldn’t we be making it easier for those citizens to engage in politics and share their opinions?

America’s democracy is strongest when every voice is heard. To maximize participation in our political process, Ohio – and America – must end such discriminatory processes. We should be working to make voting more, not less, accessible to the nation’s second largest population group, and to all qualified U.S. citizens. And we urge the Supreme Court to rule against Ohio’s aggressive voter purge process.

Arturo Vargas is executive director of National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund.


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