This article appears in the Fall 2018 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
Having won a United States Supreme Court ruling in mid-June that allowed him to kick voters off the rolls for not voting in previous elections, Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted wasted no time directing county elections officials to restart his voter-purge program.
In July, Husted instructed Ohio’s 88 county elections boards to mail address-confirmation notices by August 6 to registered voters who haven’t voted in two years. This is step one in the controversial purge, which had been on hold since a federal appeals court ruled in 2016 that Ohio’s method of removing registered voters violated federal law.
It’s a safe bet that many Ohioans don’t know that they’ve lost, or they might lose, their right to vote simply by not voting. Under Husted, Ohio has conducted the nation’s most aggressive voter purges. If you fail to vote for two years, fail to respond to the aforementioned mailing, and don’t cast a ballot or update your registration in the next four years, the state cancels your registration. Due to a federal law that prohibits canceling registrations within 90 days of a federal election, no one currently on the rolls can be removed between now and this November’s Election Day. But many thousands of Ohioans may already have had their names stricken, and don’t know it. Others, if they don’t vote this November, may find themselves ineligible to vote in 2020.
Under the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, states are supposed to have maintenance programs to keep their voter rolls up to date. The idea is to remove voters who have died or relocated. Ohio’s program, by contrast, has removed qualified voters who neither moved nor died. Like other Republican-led efforts to restrict voting, Ohio’s purge strikes hardest the poor and people of color—voters likely to support Democrats.
In its 5-to-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Ohio’s policy is reasonable, even though the National Voter Registration Act prohibits canceling registrations for not voting. The conservative majority said that because Ohio sent out a mailing to previous non-voters, the failure to vote was not the sole criterion for being dropped from the rolls—giving Ohio a constitutional pass.
Jamie Sereika (right), a volunteer for Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates, is working to re-register purged voters.
In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said the policy disenfranchises minority and low-income voters. She pointed to a “friend of the court” brief that showed a predominantly black neighborhood in downtown Cincinnati had 10 percent of its voters removed since 2012, compared with only 4 percent of voters in a suburban, white-majority neighborhood.
According to the ACLU and other voting advocates, about two million Ohio registered voters have been purged under what the state calls “the supplemental process” since Husted took office in 2011. It’s not entirely clear how many Ohio voters are in the crosshairs this time around. About 835,000 Ohio registered voters haven’t voted in two years, according to an election data analysis this summer by Cleveland.com.
DEMOCRATS AND VOTING-rights groups are doubling down on efforts to counter the purge, through voter engagement and registration networks. Ohio Democrats are scanning data county by county to find purged voters they hope to re-register in time for the midterm elections. Husted has forced the Democrats’ mobilization campaign to fan out to individual counties for information about who’s been purged. Remarkably, the secretary of state’s office said it doesn’t keep a centralized record of voters purged or those who’ve been flagged for infrequent voting. Husted spokesman Sam Rossi referred data requests to individual county boards.
Democrats and other activists are frustrated by lack of information from Husted’s office, and they say the system is riddled with errors and inconsistencies among counties.
“I have folks coming to us who have consistently voted and are still being knocked off the rolls,” said Erika Anthony, co-founder of Cleveland VOTES, a nonpartisan group that promotes turnout. “You have to wonder how many others.”
Finding voters who’ve been purged or who are in danger of being removed from the rolls has required activists to shift strategy from traditional voter-registration efforts. It’s not enough to visit public spaces and ask people if they’re registered. Volunteers are asking people if they have moved since they last voted, and if they have updated their addresses with their local elections board. They are using mobile technology to check registration status on the spot.
Husted didn’t originate Ohio Republicans’ reliance on voter purges, but he certainly intensified it. Elected as the state’s chief elections officer in 2010 (he had previously been speaker of the Ohio House), Husted (who is currently running for lieutenant governor on the Republican ticket) stepped up the frequency of the purges from every two years to every year.
County elections boards in 2012 sent 1.5 million notices to voters who hadn’t voted in two years, according to the numbers cited by Justice Stephen Breyer, who wrote a dissenting opinion in the Court’s June case. More than one million of those early mailings were not returned. One could argue the poor return rate underscores how badly flawed the policy is. Certainly not nearly that many voters moved away or died. It’s likely that many people ignored the mailing or never saw it. Moreover, the postcard did not make it clear that failing to respond or vote in the next four years would result in certain cancellation of their registrations.
The impact of the purge has been greatest in Cleveland, Columbus, and other cities, where voters are more likely to change addresses and miss elections. Cleveland has one of the highest big-city poverty rates in the nation (36 percent). The city housing court processes more than 11,000 evictions every year. Some 23,000 residents of Cleveland’s county (Cuyahoga) experience homelessness every year. It’s not hard to imagine how poverty and unstable housing get in the way of voting and answering postcards from the elections board.
Republicans claim that aggressive purges, voter-ID laws, and other restrictions are necessary to prevent voter fraud have not stood up to scrutiny. That point was underscored in August, when it was revealed that President Trump’s now-disbanded election integrity commission found no evidence of widespread fraud.
The actual, and intended, effect of such purges is to shift the partisan balance of the electorate to Republicans. In reliably Democratic Cuyahoga County, more than 40,000 voters were purged in 2015 alone, according to published reports. A 2016 Reuters analysis found registrations were canceled in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods at about twice the rate of Republican neighborhoods.
“That’s because residents of relatively affluent Republican-leaning neighborhoods are more likely to vote in both congressional elections and presidential contests, historical turnouts show. Democrats are less likely to vote in mid-term elections and thus are more at risk of falling off the rolls,” Reuters reported.
“The purge strikes Cleveland and Cuyahoga County disproportionately, and I believe intentionally. It’s no mystery this is where Democratic votes come from,” Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley (who is also a Democratic party leader of Cuyahoga County) said in an interview. “The job of elections boards and government should be to encourage people to vote and help them exercise the right if there are obstacles. Turnout is so low already, why would they discourage it?”
In a statement after the Supreme Court ruling, Husted touted Ohio’s supplemental process as a model for other states. A half-dozen states conduct voter purges similar to Ohio’s, and there are concerns that more will follow now that the Supreme Court upheld Ohio’s method. People on the political left have good reason to be worried about what’s ahead.
In a new report, “Purges: A Growing Threat to the Right to Vote,” the Brennan Center for Justice said states removed nearly 16 million voters from the rolls between 2014 and 2016—a 33 percent increase from 2006 to 2008. The purges are often flawed and prevent eligible voters from casting ballots, the report said. The Brennan Center also found several states conduct purges in ways that violate federal requirements, and said the use of inaccurate information is problematic.
DESPITE THE CHALLENGES that voter purges present them with, Ohio Democrats have reason to believe that voter turnout in November will considerably exceed its 2014 levels. One reason was the turnout rate in August’s special congressional election in central Ohio’s 12th District. A solidly Republican district for three decades, the 12th spans seven counties and includes parts of Columbus. Trump carried the district by 11 points, as did Mitt Romney by 10 points in 2012. Republican Pat Tiberi, whose departure from Congress set the stage for the contest, won the district by 36 points in 2016. But in August’s contest to fill out the balance of Tiberi’s term, Republican Troy Balderson barely edged out Democrat Danny O’Connor by less than 1 percent. (The two will face off again in November.)
Even more striking than the result were the turnout numbers. Democrats in the district increased their turnout by about 130 percent over that in May’s statewide primary; Republicans by just 50 percent.
Voters fill out their ballots at the Cincinnati Public Library precinct on primary election day, May 8, 2018, in Cincinnati.
Another gerrymandered Ohio congressional district that had been regarded as safe for Republicans is the First, in the Cincinnati region. In July, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a leading political newsletter run by the University of Virginia Center for Politics, issued a new rating tilting the district from “Leans Republican” to “Toss-Up.”
Ohio First District had been competitive until it was redrawn to Republican advantage in 2011. The partisan architects lopped off parts of Cincinnati and added Republican-heavy Warren County. Republican Representative Steve Chabot won by 18 points in 2016. Chabot’s challenger this year is Aftab Pureval, a young Democrat whose star is rising. Pureval was first elected to public office in 2016 as clerk of courts in Hamilton County, home of Cincinnati. He was the first Democrat to hold that office in more than 100 years.
The First District is now “the most winnable in the state for a Democrat,” Pureval said in an interview. Yet he is deeply concerned about the Supreme Court ruling and its disproportionate impact on black voters, who represent 22 percent of the district’s voters. His campaign has conducted voter registrations at events throughout the district, and was aiming to register 2,000 voters at the University of Cincinnati this fall.
“The purge will have and already has had a profound impact, not only on the community’s ability to vote, but on the community’s trust in government,” Pureval said. “We are poised and ready to blunt this voter purge as much as possible.”
On the heels of the Supreme Court ruling, Ohio’s top Democrat, Senator Sherrod Brown, slammed the purge as a violation of voter rights. Brown, a former Ohio secretary of state, introduced federal legislation that would make it illegal to purge inactive voters, though it would surely require wall-to-wall Democratic control in Washington for such a measure to be enacted. (Brown is currently running for re-election against Republican Representative Jim Renacci; polls show him ahead.)
PENDING A SEA CHANGE in the federal government, Ohio Democrats’ brightest hope to reverse the voter-purge policy would be an election win in November for Kathleen Clyde, a state representative from Kent, Ohio, who is the Democratic nominee for secretary of state. Clyde promises to end the purge if elected.
Clyde has made voting rights one of her signature issues. In 2015, she introduced legislation to bar the secretary of state from purging voters for missing elections or for moving within the state. Last year, she introduced a bill calling for automatic registration of eligible voters. Her efforts had little chance of gaining traction in the Republican-controlled Ohio House.
Clyde’s opponent for secretary of state, Republican State Senator Frank LaRose, has voiced support for Husted’s voter purge. LaRose applauded the Supreme Court ruling, saying in a statement it is “critical to ensuring the integrity and efficiency of our elections.”
In an interview, Clyde said her analysis, based on U.S. Election Assistance Commission data, shows about two million Ohio voters have been purged since 2011. That includes 1.2 million purged for infrequent voting and about 800,000 purged for moving and not updating their addresses. Some of those 800,000 may have moved out of state, but many moved in state and should remain eligible, she said.
“The purging of infrequent voters is overly aggressive, discriminatory, and needs to come to an end,” Clyde said. “We’re doing everything we can to get Ohio voters registered, including those who have been purged from the voter rolls.”
Clyde has lots of company in that effort. The Supreme Court decision has galvanized activists, who are spending a good deal of energy informing voters about the purge, said Anthony of Cleveland VOTES.
Nonpartisan groups such as the Columbus-based Ohio Voter Rights Coalition are stepping up efforts make sure registered voters who’ve missed elections get out to the polls and have up-to-date addresses with their county elections board.
Secretary of State Jon Husted didn't originate Ohio Republicans' reliance on voter purges, but he certainly intensified it.
The Ohio Voter Rights Coalition has developed a new mobile app that allows volunteers at fairs, food pantries, church, and other events to instantly verify a person’s voter-registration status. The coalition developed the app in response to the purge, and is sharing it with other voter organizations, said Camille Wimbish, the director of the organization.
“As we continue to promote this tool and get people to check their registration, we hopefully will make a bigger footprint as we go,” Wimbish said in an interview.
The group collaborates with Cleveland VOTES, which is giving grant money to 17 organizations this year—up from three last year. Cleveland VOTES has been conducting voter-registration training sessions this summer, and it has a dedicated staff person for the first time this year. The grantees involved with registration efforts are focused primarily in low-turnout areas.
On a recent Saturday under overcast skies, Jamie Sereika, a novice at registering voters, said she came out to Cleveland’s Uptown arts and entertainment district to do her part. A nurse practitioner in a local hospital trauma center, Sereika had recently decided to volunteer for a group called Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates. With a clipboard in hand, she stepped out from her table during an outdoor event and flagged down passersby.
“Are you registered to vote? Have you moved since the last time you voted?” she asked.
The event was only her second, but the mother of three seemed perfectly at ease calling out to strangers. Asked about her newfound activism, she mirrored feelings of others who find themselves for the first time attending rallies and volunteering, seeking an outlet for their bottled-up outrage about what’s happening in their country.
“I’m pretty horrified about what’s going on,” she said. “A lot of people don’t realize all that is going on. They’re not up to date on the purge or aware of the Supreme Court ruling.
“I had to do something to effect change. I had to get off my butt, get out of my suburban lifestyle.”
The Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless, always active in voter registration, is targeting about 30 locations this fall, including homeless shelters and drop-in centers. The coalition, a plaintiff in the lawsuit against Husted, has seen a number of its members purged from the voting rolls, said director Chris Knestrick. “We do a lot of work to make sure our constituents can participate,” he said in an interview.
The best counterpunch for voting-rights advocates would be legislation, such as the bills proposed by Sherrod Brown and Kathleen Clyde. But with Republicans controlling Washington and Columbus, such bills won’t become law anytime soon. For the time being, the battle to encourage more voting is being waged one street at a time.