Supreme Court ruling on voter roll purge undermines the right to vote
© Greg Nash

From the League of Women Voters to the marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., the right to vote is something that generations of Americans have fought to obtain and protect and a cornerstone of our democracy. Every American who is eligible to vote deserves an equal opportunity to choose who represents them and have their voice heard. However, the Supreme Court has issued yet another ruling that undermines the right to vote. In Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, the Court ruled 5-4 in favor of Ohio’s voter suppression efforts and the state’s effort to purge voters from the rolls. With this decision, Ohio Secretary of State John Husted and states across the country were given the all clear to silence American voters.

So how does all this work? In the State of Ohio, if an otherwise eligible voter does not cast a ballot over the course of six years, they will be removed from the rolls. In Cuyahoga County alone, roughly 40,000 Ohioans were purged through this process before the 2016 presidential election. A disproportionate number were minorities, low-income, college students, or had transient housing situations. They only found out their right to vote had been revoked after they showed up at the polls and were unable to cast their ballot.

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This experience was all too familiar to Army veteran Joseph Helle. Returning home to Ohio after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan to exercise his civic duty and vote, he was turned away from the ballot box – even though he registered to vote at 18 before leaving home, and didn’t change his address during his military service. Helle, now the mayor of Oak Harbor said, “I’m not one of these people that flaunts their military service, by any means, but to be told I couldn’t do one of the fundamental rights I went off and served this country for was just appalling.”

The choice of when to cast a ballot should be up to the voter. It should not have an expiration date. This practice, now condoned by the Supreme Court, is not a harmless effort to “clean up” Ohio’s voter rolls. It is a brazen attempt to take away the fundamental right to vote.

In 2013, the Supreme Court reopened the door for state infringement of voting rights in Shelby County v. Holder. Since this ruling, we have witnessed efforts by Republican-controlled state legislatures to restrict access to the ballot through strict voter ID laws, voter roll purges, polling place closures in minority communities, and the elimination of early voting periods.

A few years later, Secretary Husted, empowered by Shelby, eliminated “Golden Week,” an early voting period in which voters could register and cast in-person ballots at the same time. Golden Week was created in response to problems on Election Day in 2004, including long lines, issues with registration status and polling locations, absentee ballots and provisional ballots, and unlawful identification requirements. Tens of thousands of Ohio voters relied on Golden Week in elections that followed. Giving Ohio voters more opportunities to cast their ballots, yet in September of 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to restore this right that Ohio Republicans ripped away.

The Shelby and Husted decisions are destroying Americans’ ability to engage with our democracy at the ballot box. The Republican Party’s fixation on denying this revered freedom and the Supreme Court’s refusal to protect voting rights runs counter to our democratic values – as do the actions of the officials seeking to suppress the vote. Our public officials should be fighting to protect our right to vote, not preventing it. Any party or movement willing to suppress the voice of the people for political gain is an affront to our democratic ideals, and those who fought to secure our freedom and this very right.

I will stop at nothing to ensure the right to vote is restored to every eligible Ohioan and American. That is why we need legislation such as the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would reinstate the eliminated portions of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 and expand voting rights to several disenfranchised groups. In 1957, Martin Luther King Jr. petitioned lawmakers to “give us the ballot.” Over 60 years later lawmakers are charged with that same task.

Ryan represents Ohio’s 13th District.