Court ruling brings most purged Ohio voters back into the democratic process

Voting rights groups cheered the ruling, but they worry it’s too little, too late.

Stickers available for voters at the Hamilton County Board of Elections in Cincinnati. CREDIT: AP Photo/John Minchillo
Stickers available for voters at the Hamilton County Board of Elections in Cincinnati. CREDIT: AP Photo/John Minchillo

Most of the hundreds of thousands of Ohio voters who were illegally purged over the last five years will now be able to vote, following an order from a federal judge Wednesday night.

Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State John Husted, who pursued an aggressive purge of voters that disproportionately hit low-income communities of color, said he will abide by the court’s order.

“The judge’s ruling is perfectly fine with me,” Husted told WTVN Radio. “Because we are talking about people who are still Ohioans and who are still legally allowed to vote.”

Yet local officials and voting rights advocates say if Husted agreed that the voters should be allowed to participate, he should have restored their rights sooner rather than waiting for a court to force his hand.


“I called on Secretary Husted weeks ago to restore these voters immediately. He didn’t have to wait to be ordered by the court,” said Ohio House Rep. Kathleen Clyde (D-Kent). “He definitely dragged his feet.”

Early voting is already a week underway in the crucial swing state , where Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are currently in a dead heat. In a state with a history of narrow margins of victory, some are concerned that recently re-added voters won’t get the information about the court ruling and won’t attempt to vote. Some voters may have already shown up to the polls and been turned away.

The court ordered the Secretary of State and county election boards to add information for purged voters to their websites, but Mike Brickner with the ACLU of Ohio says he and other voting rights advocates are worried the news won’t reach the people who need it most.

“There are many people who may fall between the cracks,” he said. “The population we are dealing with are infrequent voters. They may not have internet access, and they may not be paying attention to the media.”

Brickner worries too that not all of the state’s roughly 35,000 poll workers will be trained in time, and may improperly deny ballots to people who should receive one.

“We are telling these voters to ask for a provisional ballot and not leave until they get one,” he said.

As the ACLU and other groups scramble to get the word out to the population of purged voters — who disproportionately live in the state’s lower-income, Democratic-voting neighborhoods — Democratic officials vented anger at the Secretary of State for pursuing the purge in the first place.


“John Husted should be ashamed of himself,” said David Pepper, the chair of the Ohio Democrats. “He attempted a literal rigging of the vote.”

Pepper previously worked as a clerk on the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in September that Husted’s process for purging hundreds of thousands of voters simply because they missed a few elections violated federal law.

After that ruling, Husted argued that it would be too burdensome for him to restore all of the voters he illegally removed, and offered instead to only allow a fraction of them to vote. The judge rejected this argument Wednesday, writing: “By requiring election officials to tabulate these provisional ballots, the Court finds no undue burden on election officials.” The court also ordered the state to stock extra provisional ballots to accommodate these voters.

“A right is a right is a right.”

But the groups that sued the state, including the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the A. Phillip Randolph Institute, did not get everything they wanted.

They had argued that the state should allow improperly purged voters to vote either absentee or in-person, and the court order only covers in-person voters.


“People should be able to vote provisionally by mail,” Brickner told ThinkProgress. “There may be people who are out of town, out of state, out of country, who cannot make it back to their place on Election Day. And if you’re a person who can’t leave your residence because you have a disability, voting in person is not a feasible option.”

Still, local lawmakers told ThinkProgress the ruling is a strong stand against the state’s original argument: that “cleaning up” the voters rolls includes purging those who vote infrequently.

“Your right to vote is not contingent on you exercising it every single time,” said Dan Ramos (D-Lorain). “That would be like saying that because you didn’t make any political speeches yesterday, you can’t do it today. It’s tantamount to saying that a monk who took a vow of silence is never allowed to talk again. A right is a right is a right.”