Former President Lyndon B. Johnson observed, “A man without a vote is a man without protection.”
More than six decades after LBJ’s historic declaration, his words still ring true. That’s because it doesn’t take a Supreme Court justice to understand that the right to vote is the lynchpin to the many rights, liberties and freedoms we all hold so dear as Americans.
Or does it? Because, the Supreme Court apparently disagrees with this basic constitutional principle.
This week, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority ruled that the sacred right to vote is not an inalienable right, but more a ‘use it or lose it’ proposition. That’s right, the Court’s 5-4 decision in Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, allows my home state of Ohio to continue aggressively purging potential voters based solely on voter inactivity. To be more precise, in the state of Ohio, an individual who doesn’t vote for two years is sent a postcard to verify their residence. If that postcard is not returned and the voter does not vote in four subsequent years, then they are automatically purged from the voter rolls. No questions asked. No further notice given.
While I believe every eligible person should vote in every election, there are a number of reasons why someone might stay home on Election Day and just as many reasons why a postcard is not a reliable method of confirming whether a person still lives at a particular address.
Purged voters can re-register, but many won’t find that out until it’s too late—especially now that the state of Ohio nixed its Golden Week, eliminating the widely successful, week-long initiative that allowed potential voters to register and vote all on the same day.
No matter, the end result is that numerous voters get purged from the rolls despite having done nothing to otherwise affect their eligibility. In fact, an estimated 7,500 Ohioans saw their registration wrongly purged in 2016 alone.
That may not seem too consequential, but given the competitiveness of the previous election cycle and the ongoing close primaries across the country—not to mention the upcoming 2018 General Election—we know that every vote counts. For reference, one vote determined control of the Virginia state legislature this year and a mere 80,000 votes in three states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin) put Trump in the White House.
That begs the question: is it necessary to protecting our democracy that voter lists are purged?
In a word: no.
Supporters of “voter integrity” laws argue that purging voter rolls help to prevent fraud. Yet, studies refute these claims as baseless, concluding that voter fraud is extremely rare to the point of being practically nonexistent (see Brennan Center for Justice’s “Debunking the Voter Fraud Myth”) — but don’t just take my word for it! Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted (of the aforementioned Supreme Court case) even conceded in the past that voter fraud is “not an epidemic.” Or to borrow a phrase from The Columbus Dispatch’s previous reporting, voter fraud is “just a tiny blip.”
Justice Sotomayor’s dissent in Husted gets it right, recognizing that voter purge laws exist in the historical context of “concerted state efforts to prevent minorities from voting and to undermine the efficacy of their votes.” I would be remiss if I did not mention that minority Americans are generally less likely to vote consistently and more likely to change addresses – and are less likely to vote Republican. The data backs it up. In Franklin County, home to the state capital Columbus and my constituents, 11 percent of voters in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods have been purged since 2012 due to inactivity, compared to only 6 percent of voters in Republican-leaning neighborhoods.
Ignoring this unpleasant truth, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority has essentially rewritten the landmark law, the Help America Vote Act, which was intended to make it easier to vote, as a green light for states to do just the opposite. Now, other states can use Ohio’s backward example to purge the voting rights of countless eligible voters, jeopardizing the very protection LBJ spoke of and for which many Americans have fought and died to protect.
The Supreme Court’s Husted decision was a sad day in our country’s democracy.
Beatty represents Ohio’s 3rd District.