The Supreme Court dealt a major blow to voting rights this week in its Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute ruling. Let's look at what happened.
When he went to vote in 2015, Larry Harmon of Ohio was surprised to learn that he wasn't registered. He found this odd given that he absolutely had registered to vote, and had even voted in the 2008 presidential election. So what happened? As it turns out, Ohio law permits the state to remove "inactive" voters from its rolls.
The case hinged on whether that Ohio law violated the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, put in place to stop states from removing certain voters. The state argued that since they send "inactive" voters a written notice prior to purging their registration, this didn't violate federal law. The case was argued in Jan. 2018, and on June 11, the court issued a 5-4 decision siding with the state.
Protesters rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court during arguments in the Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute case in Jan. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.
While the ruling addressed Ohio's law, six other states have similar purging policies in place. Leigh Chapman, the senior policy advisor at Let America Vote, highlights how these policies have played out in other states like Georgia, which has removed hundreds of thousands of registered voters from the rolls over the course of several years.
"This decision will allow states to pursue even more radical purging practices affecting eligible American voters — particularly veterans, low-income voters, and people of color who already may face obstacles getting to the polls," Chapman says.
The answer to why states and certain politicians would want to remove voters is simple: to help them win.
The demographics disproportionately affected by these purging policies have a tendency to vote for Democratic candidates. The end result is that it will help Republican candidates, which explains why President Donald Trump tweeted that the SCOTUS decision was "Great News!"
Attempts to suppress the vote are undeniably undemocratic, and yet, they're everywhere.
You know all of those scary stories about voter fraud that usually come with fantastical claims about "millions of people" voting illegally or people casting multiple ballots?
Here's a reality check: Actual voter fraud is extremely rare.
How rare? The Washington Post published a comprehensive report analyzing more than 1 billion ballots between 2000 and 2014 and found just 31 instances of voter impersonation (or about 0.000003% of votes).
Still, many politicians enact policies they claim are needed to combat it, including voter ID laws, increasingly difficult registration processes, polling closures, and reductions in early voting.
But in reality, voting fraud policies create a separate problem: lower turnout.
Demonstrators protest the Sept. 2015 Supreme Court ruling that struck down several key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Photo by Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty images.
Political scientists at the University of California, San Diego, studied the effect of voter ID laws — one of the most common methods of voter suppression — and found that the end result was a disproportionately lower turnout for people of color. Their study found that in the first election following the implementation of voter ID laws, there was an estimated 7.7% drop in Democratic turnout and a decrease of 4.6% in Republican turnout.
In other words, it's not voter fraud or inactive voters who are rigging our elections, it's people who use those fears to suppress turnout for their own political gain.
Automatic voter registration is the obvious path forward.
"The answer is to enact policies at the state and federal levels that will make elections free, fair, and accessible for all," Chapman says, suggesting the adoption of policies like automatic voter registration (currently the law in 13 states) and same-day registration (currently allowed in 17 states and the District of Columbia).
"These reforms strengthen our democracy by bolstering the voter rolls, making elections more secure, reducing provisional ballots, and increasing voter turnout," Chapman notes.
The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law has been a major advocate for automatic voter registration, making the argument that it would add tens of millions of eligible voters to the rolls, save the government money, increase accuracy, and improve election security. In effect, it changes an "opt-in" system to an "opt-out."
But there are three things you can do right now to help fight voter suppression.
1. Get informed. Stay up-to-date with news happening in your state. Do you live in one of the 13 states with automatic voter registration? What are your local officials' stances? Your local paper is a great place to source to start with.
2. Get involved with voting rights groups. Let America Vote founder Jason Kander encourages people to contact their representatives and work to become a state that can serve as a positive example to the rest of the country.
As these positive examples are concerned, Kander is fond of Oregon, calling it the "gold standard," with one of the highest turnouts year after year. Thanks to a law that went into effect in 2016, Oregonians over the age of 18 are automatically registered to vote when they obtain a state ID or driver's license.
3. Hold elected officials accountable. Kander notes that the reason officials push policies designed to suppress votes is that it helps them win elections. If we can make those politicians pay a price at the ballot box, we'll almost certainly see a shift away from that strategy.
Democracy works best when we all get involved, and the people who represent us should try to find new ways to increase turnout, not decrease it.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of an Ohio policy aimed at disenfranchising voters, and if we don't act now, voter suppression will only get worse. Fighting back starts with all of us.