In yet another reversal of a previous Justice Department stance on voting rights, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ DOJ has weighed in on a pending Supreme Court case regarding Ohio’s practice of purging inactive voters from its rolls.
The department argued in an amicus brief that Ohio’s voter purges, which have disproportionately hit Democrats and African Americans, are lawful. That’s the opposite of what the DOJ under Attorney General Loretta Lynch said about the case last year.
“Among other things, accurate registration lists are essential to prevent[ing] voter fraud,” the brief asserts.
Ohio is fighting for the right to send notices to any voters who miss two federal elections inquiring if they have moved, passed away or become otherwise ineligible to vote. If the voter does not respond and continues to miss federal elections, he or she then would be removed from the voter rolls.
The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found those purges to be illegal in September 2016, siding with the ACLU of Ohio and groups that represent homeless Ohioans and communities of color. The state appealed, and the Supreme Court agreed in May to hear the case.
As Justin Levitt, a constitutional law professor at Loyola Law School and voting rights expert, noted, it’s extremely unusual for the DOJ to switch positions in a case after already weighing in at the appellate level. He also pointed out that no career civil rights attorneys signed onto the brief, which appears to have been drafted solely by Trump administration political appointees.
The case could determine the political fate of one of the nation’s most important swing states.
Over the last five years, under Secretary of State John Husted, a Republican, Ohio has purged nearly 2 million voters from its rolls. Some of those voters were legitimately removed because they either died or left the state, but a 2016 investigation by Reuters found that low-income, black, Democratic voters were disproportionately purged. The investigation also 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.