Ohio does not want to add most illegally purged voters back to the rolls

The Republican Secretary of State’s proposal would leave thousands disenfranchised.

James Chambers deposits his vote into a ballot box at the Hamilton County Board of Elections as early voting begins. CREDIT: AP Photo/John Minchillo
James Chambers deposits his vote into a ballot box at the Hamilton County Board of Elections as early voting begins. CREDIT: AP Photo/John Minchillo

COLUMBUS, OHIO — Ohio native Larry Harmon has been voting since 1976. He has only skipped a couple of elections in his life, when he didn’t feel informed enough or compelled by the candidates on the ballot. Last November, he showed up to his regular neighborhood polling place hoping to weigh in on a controversial ballot initiative on medical marijuana, only to find he had been purged from the rolls for missing the 2012 and 2014 elections.

A few weeks ago, a federal court declared Ohio’s purge of Harmon and more than one million other inactive voters illegal. Since then, the state and voting rights groups have been negotiating a settlement to allow most of those illegally purged to cast ballots this November. Those negotiations broke down this week, and the state submitted its own proposal to the U.S. District Court that would only let a narrow segment of purged voters to participate.

The state’s plan, which they called a “reasonable compromise,” would exclude anyone illegally purged before 2015, anyone who needs to vote by mail, and anyone who has moved since they last registered to vote. Only those purged last year who have the same address they had in 2011 and can vote in person would qualify.

Because lower-income people move more frequently, and because people with disabilities rely on vote-by-mail when they can’t make it to the polls, the voting rights groups that challenged the purge say the state’s proposed fix is inadequate.

“We’re asking for people to be treated as if they had never been purged, because they never should have been purged.”

Over the last five years, under Republican Secretary of State John Husted, Ohio has purged nearly 2 million voters from its rolls. Some of them were legitimately removed because they died or left the state. But many, like Harmon, had only committed the sin of failing to vote in every single election. An investigation by Reuters earlier this year found that low-income, black, Democratic voters were disproportionately purged. The study found that in Ohio’s major cities, including Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati, voters have been removed from the rolls in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods at about twice the rate as in Republican neighborhoods.

Counsel Stewart Naifeh, who represented the purged voters in this case, told ThinkProgress that they are now hurrying to submit their own, more inclusive plan to the court.

“Anyone purged illegally should be able to cast a provisional ballot. And if the voter has done nothing disqualifying since they were purged, it should count,” he said. “We’re asking for people to be treated as if they had never been purged, because they never should have been purged.”

Naifeh noted that hundreds of thousands of Ohioans have voted by mail in recent elections, meaning the state’s limited plan would leave out a huge swath of the electorate.

The state argued in their motion, however, that they did not need to offer illegally purged voters any remedy at all. They wrote that “compelling reasons and legal authority” only require them to offer “a different process going forward.”

Many Ohio lawmakers, including Rep. Kathleen Clyde (D-Kent), disagree. She has demanded that the state add all of the illegally purged voters back to the rolls.

“It is imperative that [Secretary of State] Husted stop making excuses, do the legal and right thing, and give back 1.2 million Ohioans their constitutional right to vote,” she said. “Mr. Husted, enough is enough. Restore these voters now.”

Early voting is already underway in the key swing state, and the latest polls find Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton locked in a dead heat. A final ruling from the District Court could come at any moment.