Talk about voter suppression may focus on gerrymandering, but the U.S. Supreme Court is weighing a case on voter purge processes in Ohio that could have farther-reaching implications.
The American Civil Liberties Union and Ohio voter Larry Harmon, along with other groups, have challenged the purging of voters who have not cast ballots in recent elections.
Some states conduct periodic purges in an effort to keep voter rolls current, by removing the deceased and those who have moved, but the plaintiffs argue Ohio's purges are too harsh.
"I can't speak to Ohio, but in Oklahoma, it takes two federal cycles of no voting, then you become inactive," said Rusty Clark, assistant secretary for the Cherokee County Election Board. "That takes eight or nine years. We send address confirmation cards. If the voters send them back, they remain active."
Oklahoma sends confirmation cards to voters who are approaching their purge dates. Ohio supposedly sends cards after two years of inactivity. Ohioans can respond with a prepaid mailing or online, and provide any updated information. If there is no response to a card after four years, the voter is purged from the rolls.
Harmon pursued a legal challenge after not voting in 2009-'10, then being told in 2015 he was not registered. He argued he had not changed residences, and should not have been purged, and did not remember receiving a confirmation card.
A federal appeals court ruled in 2016 that Ohio's process violated the National Voter Registration Act, which forbids purging a voter "by reason of the person's failure to vote." Mike DeWine, Ohio attorney general, appealed to SCOTUS, arguing that a purge is for not responding to a notice, not for failing to cast ballots.
Federal law states that voters can't be purged for not voting, but can be removed for not returning confirmation notices.
The plaintiffs argue that Ohio can't possibly regard the cards as the triggers to purge voters, because when most Ohioans don't vote in each federal midterm election, the sending of cards ludicrously assumes half the voters in the state have moved.
Ohio says the claims of voter suppression are exaggerated. About 5.6 million votes were cast in the state's 2016 elections, of which only 7,515 were affected by the decision of the federal appeals court. The defense suggests the number doesn't account for people who still didn't vote, found that they still were not registered, voted absentee, or left the polls without casting a provisional ballot
Oklahoma, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and West Virginia also have procedures to remove voters, but they use longer fuses than Ohio. Nonetheless, if the Supreme Court decides Ohio's purges are due to non-voting, it could affect the other states.
Whether Oklahoma's purge laws are fair is a matter for debate. If a voter who went through the trouble to register doesn't fill out a ballot through nine years, and didn't return the warning card, it might be reasonable for the county to wonder if that voter moved or is dead. But should something as integral as the right to vote come with a "use it or lose it" catch?
"I don't know that there is a perfect solution," said Dr. Shannon Grimes, chair of the Cherokee County Libertarian Party. "It is a balancing act between keeping voter lists as accurate as possible and infrequent participation. How much should be the voter's responsibility to maintain current registration versus the state cleaning the rolls? Maintaining voter registration certainly isn't a thing at the top of anyone's minds as they live life. So it is understandable that they forget to re-register when they get a notice in the mail or move."
There is another reason some are opposed to voter purges: They believe it targets minorities and others likely to vote Democratic. The party sometimes gets the vote out for midterms and other elections - it seems focused on 2018 - but Democrats rush the polls in full fury every four years.
Meanwhile, Republicans frequently post better turnouts for even the most tedious balloting, to the point that the New York Times wondered in 2017 what might happen "If Liberals Voted." So it could be argued that a common Democrat is in greater danger of being purged than a common Republican.
"Generally, I would say that Oklahoma voter laws are mostly fair; on the other hand, I think that the law in Ohio may have a few overreaches," said Justin Kennedy, chair of the Cherokee County Young Republicans. "I think Ohio could do better by taking a look at extending the amount of time a voter has before being removed from the rolls. Likewise, both states could also look at things like death certificates, tax records, change of address requests, driver's license records, and vehicle registrations to determine voters residency and eligibility."
Kennedy said he understood that voters can become apathetic and many people want maximum participation from the electorate, but that the occasional purge could also keep records current and reduce the opportunity for fraud.
"I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing, considering the importance of maintaining the integrity of our elections," Kennedy said. "When we look at cases of voter fraud, no matter how insignificant they may seem, they still pose a real and valid threat to America's voting process."
A Daily Press online poll asked readers: "Do you believe voters should be stricken from the rolls just because they fail to vote in certain elections?" Respondents overwhelmingly clicked "no," with 39 strongly disagreeing, and five disagreeing somewhat. Two strongly agreed, and one somewhat agreed.
Readers were also asked about their thoughts on voter purges in the Jan. 13 TDP Saturday Forum on Facebook.
"Most voters only vote in presidential elections," said Dana Rogers, a former Democratic Party county chair. "Rolls should be purged when someone dies or moves, but then again, most people do not get new voter registrations when they move and dont' know about absentee voting by mail. They also do not utilize in-person early voting. In general, our citizens are ignorant of their local voting laws."
Brad Austin pointed to the 2017 conviction of a Mexico national receiving an eight-year sentence in Tarrant County, Texas, for voting illegally in 2012 and 2014, saying "there is evidence of voter fraud."
"On every American citizen's 18th birthday, they should receive a draft card and a voter ID number so they understand the importance of both," said Alex Cheatham. "It's time to stop thinking of ourselves as the 'consumers' industry wishes us to be, and start remembering what it means to be a citizen again."
Requests for comment from Deb Proctor, chair of the Cherokee County Democratic Party, and Kari Barnes, chair of the Cherokee County Republican Party, were not returned by press time.
Check it out
For more discussion on voting rights, go to www.facebook.com/tdpress and scroll down to the Jan. 13 Saturday Forum.