Why voters shouldn’t have to, but must be vigilant about their right to vote

In the deluge of news during the 2018 election cycle, many might have missed the case of Larry Harmon, a Navy veteran, who had entered his local polling place in 2015 because he wanted to vote on a marijuana legalization ballot initiative to find that he was not on the voter rolls. He had been unimpressed by the candidates during the 2010, 2012, and 2014 elections and had sat out those elections, not realizing that doing so would cost him ability to cast a ballot in 2015.

Mr. Harmon’s case made it to the Supreme Court last year, which should put all voters on notice — that their right to vote requires an extra measure of protection.

As we recover briefly from the hangover of the 2018 election cycle only to quickly enter the soon-to-be crowded field of the 2020 cycle, our attention will naturally turn to swing states. Mr. Harmon was from one of the most critical swing states — Ohio — and as a result of his case, voters all over the country need to become more vigilant. For people of color, the ability to vote may be under special threat.

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Mr. Harmon’s case — known as Husted vs. A. Philip Randolph Institute — centered on a practice that has become the rage for some state lawmakers and secretary of state offices around the country: voter purging. According to the Brennan Center for Justice’s report on voter purges, “purges, if done properly, are an important way to ensure that voter rolls are dependable, accurate, and up-to-date.”

Ohio, however, moves more quickly than other states to purge its voter rolls. Some voters can be targeted for a purge based on failure to vote in just one federal election cycle, according to a brief filed by the Brennan Center and the League of Women Voters.

When done properly, experts show that well-executed “purges can remove duplicate names, and people who have moved, died, or are otherwise ineligible.”

The problem was that Larry Harmon hadn’t moved, his name wasn’t duplicated, and he wasn’t serving a prison sentence. He just had not voted in the past few elections.

Advocates for aggressive voter purging like that done by Ohio’s then-Secretary of State Jon Husted have cast themselves as vanguards of protecting the electoral system from fraud. But as several studies have shown that’s not the case, especially Justin Levitt’s research, which found “just 35 credible allegations of fraud from 2000 and 2014 — out of more than 800 million ballots cast.”

Voter purging is not simply a practice supported at the state level. President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpWhat the Mueller report tells us about Putin, Russia and Trump's election Fox's Brit Hume fires back at Trump's criticism of the channel Anti-US trade war song going viral in China MORE’s Justice Department has urged state and local election officials to be more aggressive in their purging practices.

On June 11 last year, the Supreme Court ruled that Ohio’s voter purging practices could, in fact, continue.

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Though the Supreme Court ruled that Ohio was allowed to continue their purging practices, the Supreme Court also noted that Ohio voters removed from the rolls based on a perceived change of address needed to be given “proper notice that they would be purged if they didn’t take certain steps.” So, on October 31,  the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals granted an emergency motion for an injunction to protect purged voters during the 2018 midterms.  

Organizations like the one I work for, Demos, fought for these temporary exceptions — resulting in 772 more ballots cast — in part because purges don’t affect all people evenly. In fact, voters of color are disproportionately impacted. Often, voters of color are more transient and have less job flexibility to return state cards and notices of their voter eligibility.

While 772 might not sound like a significant number, 64 Ohio elections in 2018 were decide by a single vote or tied.

But though these exceptions ensured that those 772 voters unfairly purged could cast a ballot in 2018, they should not provide solace. In fact, voters need to become that much more aware and vigilant. Their right to vote is contingent.

Even if these purges bore no electoral consequences, curtailing or limiting the individual right to vote is an indictment of the democratic process as it is practiced in the United States today.

Looking toward the 2020 election, Ohio’s swing state status and its electoral impact will undoubtedly occupy many headlines. But with 25,943 voters purged from Franklin County alone for failing to vote for a two-year period, Ohioans — and voters across the country — need to be proactive.

Ohio is not alone: Similar laws in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Oregon, Oklahoma, West Virginia and Montana are also protected by the Supreme Court ruling.

It is perhaps a dangerous indication that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” has not become cliché.

Nearly one year after Mr. Harmon’s case made its way to Washington, we mark the desperate need for enhanced vigilance of voting rights everywhere.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct the characterization of the purge process in Ohio - a voter may be targeted for the purge process to begin if the voter fails to vote in one federal election cycle.

Caleb Gayle is an Emerging Voices Fellow at Demos, a public policy organization that works to reduce political and economic inequality, where he writes about race and voting rights. His work has been published in The New York Times, The Guardian, The New Republic and others. Follow him on Twitter @GayleCaleb