Elections are supposed to reflect the will of the people. Instead, our nation has taken another sure step toward elections that reflect the will of our rulers.
Is there someplace we can go to vote against that?
On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court said in an Ohio case that it is perfectly constitutional to purge people from voting rolls if they sit out a couple of elections and don’t respond to, or even notice, a mailing from election officials.
Let’s think about that.
We all fail to get our mail now and then — mail carriers make mistakes. And we all toss out anything that looks like junk mail.
For that matter, we all forget now and then to do the little stuff demanded by government bureaucrats, like mailing back a small card we’re supposed to mail back. To fail to get around to the little stuff is to be human.
But in Ohio now, thanks to Monday’s ruling by the conservative majority of the Supreme Court, if you fail to mail back that little card, you can be denied your right to vote. And you can bet, as with other recent schemes to suppress voting rights, this undemocratic scam won’t be contained to Ohio.
People across the country this fall will show up to vote only to be told that, nope, your name’s no longer on the rolls — go away.
The Supreme Court’s decision gives a big boost to Republican efforts to keep Democratic-leaning groups — read African-Americans and Latinos — from voting. All five Republican-appointed justices voted for it. President Donald Trump’s Justice Department changed sides to support it, and Trump himself — who clearly would benefit from voter suppression in Republican-controlled states in 2020 — celebrated the ruling on Twitter.
If Illinois had engaged in this sort of court-sanctioned voter suppression in 2016, more than 300,000 people would have been wrongly kicked out of the polls, Cook County Clerk David Orr estimates. A vote swing of that size could have flipped the results of the only statewide race on the ballot that year, for state comptroller.
For that reason, Orr told us, he believes Monday’s ruling was unconstitutional.
“It seems to me the court did everything they could to support voter suppression in Ohio,” Orr said.
If other Republican-controlled states follow Ohio’s lead, they will be targeting people who have their hands full with life’s struggles and have the least ability to cope with bureaucratic red tape. Turnout will decline among poorer people and minorities — groups that tend to vote Democratic.
Ohio has a history of making voting difficult for selected groups. In 2004, voters were forced to stand in lines for as long as four hours, often in the rain, in areas with lots of black voters, and some students in Ohio’s Knox County had to wait 10 hours to vote.
Also that year, election boards in the state were told to toss out voter registrations made on anything thinner than 80-pound paper — the thickness of a post card — to discourage voter registration drives. African Americans were purged from the rolls at twice the rate of whites in large counties leading up to the 2016 election, and early voting hours were trimmed that year.
That’s the kind of history Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor no doubt had in mind when she wrote in a dissent from Monday’s ruling: “Congress enacted the [National Voting Rights Act] against the backdrop of substantial efforts by states to disenfranchise low-income and minority voters, including programs that purged eligible voters from registration lists because they failed to vote in prior elections.”
Writing in a separate dissent joined by three other Justices, Stephen Breyer said it “essentially proves nothing at all” if a voter doesn’t respond to a mailing from election officials. A citizen’s failure to vote in elections, he wrote, should not trigger a process that leads to his or her name being purged from the voting rolls.
If election officials are serious about cleaning up our voter rolls, they already have the tools to do so. The federal Electronic Registration Information Center makes it possible for states to share voter registration and drivers license information and other data to track voters who have moved and forgotten to update their voting records. Within states, government agencies are allowed to share address changes with local election boards to help them update their records.
Denying Americans the vote simply because they chose not to vote in past elections — and did not respond to a one-time note in the mail — is utterly contrary to the substance and spirit of our democracy.
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