Supreme Court takes on Ohio voter purge, which included veteran who missed elections while serving

Joe Helle missed several elections while he was serving in the Army, so Ohio took away his right to vote.

A voter is seen through an American Flag as he walks into cast his ballots at the Elton Methodist Church on November 8, 2016 in Elkton, Ohio. (Photo by Ty Wright/Getty Images)
A voter is seen through an American Flag as he walks into cast his ballots at the Elton Methodist Church on November 8, 2016 in Elkton, Ohio. (Photo by Ty Wright/Getty Images)

When Ohio resident Joe Helle returned in 2011 from Army tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was eager to get back to his community and routine. He had always voted since he was 18, so in August 2011 he went to his polling place where he intended to cast a ballot in a special election for local school issues.

Instead, he was told that his name did not appear on the voter rolls, and was forced to cast a provisional ballot that would not be counted. In November, the same thing occurred when he tried to vote in the general election.

When he contacted Ohio’s secretary of state, Helle learned of the state’s policy of purging from the rolls voters who do not participate in federal elections for two years. If voters are found to be inactive for two years, Ohio sends them a mailer to verify their address. If the voter does not respond and does not vote for two more years, he or she is purged from the rolls.

Though Helle requested an absentee ballot while he was in Iraq, he said he can’t be sure that the mail ever made its way back to Ohio. And he said he never received the address verification mailer. Because he missed federal elections for several years, he was effectively disenfranchised when he went to the polls in 2011.

“It was very emotional,” he told ThinkProgress Monday. “It felt pretty bad to be a veteran and to be told, ‘Hey, you can’t vote because you couldn’t visit the polling place easily from Iraq or Afghanistan.’ It was kind of crushing and heartbreaking.”

Between 2011 when it implemented the policy and 2016, Ohio purged roughly 1.2 million people from the rolls for voting infrequently. Surveys of Ohio’s voting lists have found that “voters have been struck from the rolls in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods at roughly twice the rate as in Republican neighborhoods,” according to Reuters.

“I don’t understand why you can’t just stay registered,” said Helle, who won a race for mayor of his Ohio town in 2015 and is now running for state legislature. “What’s the harm in that?”

On Wednesday, the state’s purging policy will go before the U.S. Supreme Court when they hear arguments in Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute. Lawyers for Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted (R) will argue that the policy is necessary for voting list maintenance, while advocates for voters will say it violates the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). States cannot deregister a voter “by reason of the person’s failure to vote,” they argue.

Demos and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), two voting-rights organizations who brought the lawsuit in 2016, are asking the court to uphold the Sixth Circuit’s ruling in favor of the voters. Like the policy itself, the Supreme Court’s decision is likely to fall along partisan lines.

Ohio’s system was implemented in 2011 under pressure from conservative legal activists, who had been encouraging states to administer purges of their voting rolls. While President Obama’s Department of Justice sided with the voters when the case was in the lower courts, President Trump’s DOJ switched positions in August 2017 and now supports Ohio’s Republican secretary of state.

If the court allows the purging to continue, voting advocates say voting rights will be in serious jeopardy.

“It really seems like this is the direction that people who want to restrict voting are moving in,” Dale Ho, director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, told TPM. “And this case, by potentially weakening the NVRA’s restrictions on purging, could help with that effort.”

Already, 17 states — all GOP-controlled — have signed onto a brief supporting Ohio’s position. “Many states require or at least permit list-maintenance programs similar to the Ohio program challenged in this case,” the states wrote. “The amici states believe this process and others like it are accurate, cost-effective, and permissible means of carrying out their list-maintenance obligations under the NVRA.”

For Helle, who has served as mayor of Oak Harbor since 2015 and is currently running for the state legislature, a ruling in favor of Ohio would not only be an attack on veterans but an assault on the right to vote.

“Being an elected official, I don’t understand it,” he said. “I want as many people to vote as possible, because it’s not about me winning or losing. It’s about the community.”

The Supreme Court will consider Ohio’s policy at a time when tension over voting is at a high in the United States. Last week, President Trump disbanded the commission he put together to investigate his false claim that millions of illegal voters cost him the popular vote. He and Republican commissions claim the work will continue under the Department of Homeland Security, but Democrats say they will continue pressing for the activity to be made transparent and to prove that claims of “voter fraud” are overblown.

Under Husted, Ohio has been at the forefront among states pushing the myth of fraud. The Republican secretary of state has claimed that President Obama’s immigration policies would allow non-citizens to register to vote in Ohio, with “lasting implications for the integrity of our elections.” Though he has admitted that non-citizen voting is not a major problem, he still insists he has to be extra vigilant because of Ohio’s position as a critical swing state.

During the 2012 election, Husted led efforts to cut early voting, going so far as to defy a court order requiring early voting hours to be restored. In 2014, he agreed to join an error-riddled multi-state voter purge database which he claims would prevent voters from casting ballots in multiple states during an election.

“I can’t understand why a reasonable, hard-working person of integrity would want to restrict voting so much just for their possibility of winning… under the guise of protecting elections,” Helle said. “The amount of people actually breaking the law with this is so minuscule that it doesn’t explain such a drastic move to remove folks from the rolls.”