By Andrew Chung
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday revived Ohio’s contentious policy of purging infrequent voters from its registration rolls, dealing a setback to voting rights proponents who said the practice has disenfranchised thousands of registered voters.
In a 5-4 decision with the court’s conservatives in the majority, the justices overturned a lower court ruling that Ohio’s policy violated the National Voter Registration Act, a 1993 federal law that forbids removing voters from registration lists for failing to vote.
Voters purged from registration rolls who sued to challenge the policy in the Republican-governed state said the practice illegally erased thousands of voters from registration rolls and disproportionately impacted racial minorities and poor people who tend to back Democratic candidates.
The state argued that the policy was needed to keep voting rolls current, clearing out people who have moved away or died.
The court’s four liberal justices dissented from the decision.
Under Ohio’s policy, if registered voters miss voting for two years, they are sent registration confirmation notices. If they do not respond and do not vote over the following four years, they are removed from the rolls.
Republican President Donald Trump’s administration backed Ohio in the case, reversing a stance taken by Democratic former President Barack Obama’s administration against the policy.
Writing for the majority, conservative Justice Samuel Alito said the court was not deciding whether Ohio’s policy “is the ideal method for keeping its voting rolls up to date. The only question before us is whether it violates federal law. It does not.”
The challengers criticized what they called Ohio’s “use it or lose it” policy that they said violated registered voters’ right to choose when to vote, noting that some voters do not cast a ballot when they do not support any of the candidates running.
Democrats have accused Republicans of taking steps at the state level, including laws requiring certain types of government-issued identification, intended to suppress the vote of minorities, poor people and others who generally favor Democratic candidates.
A 2016 Reuters analysis found roughly twice the rate of voter purging in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods in Ohio’s three largest counties as in Republican-leaning neighborhoods.
The challengers, represented by liberal advocacy group Demos along with the American Civil Liberties Union, sued Ohio Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted in 2016 to end the policy.
Ohio contends voters are not purged from registration rolls for not voting but for failing to respond to a notice mailed by the state to them and then not casting a ballot for four more years.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati in 2016 blocked Ohio’s policy, ruling that it ran afoul of the 1993 law. The state appealed to the Supreme Court.
The case was one of several pivotal election-related disputes the justices are resolving during their current term, which runs through June. They have yet to decide two high-profile cases out of Wisconsin and Maryland that could impact future elections involving claims that state or congressional district maps were illegally drawn to favor one party over another, a practice called partisan gerrymandering.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)