Ohio’s Voting-Rights Ruling: What’s the Upshot?

Initial reports seemed to suggest that last night’s ruling by the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals on voter registration procedures in the critical swing state of Ohio could potentially disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of newly registered voters.

In truth, the story is more complicated than that. It’s not clear how many, if any, voters will be dropped from the rolls as a result of the ruling, and the underlying legal dispute is not as cut and dry as in some of the other GOP-led voter suppression efforts we’ve covered.

We’ve seen a slew of voting-related litigation in states and counties across the nation. So it’s worth taking a moment to understand how this latest development might affect voting in a state that John Kerry lost by around 118,000 votes in 2004 — and what it says about the where the Republican’s voter-suppression strategy is heading.

Ohio’s Democratic Secretary of State, Jennifer Brunner, was being sued by the state Republican party, in what it says is an effort bring the state into compliance with the federal Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, and state election laws.

The entire 6th Circuit reversed a three-judge appeals panel and sided with the GOP. The court held that HAVA requires Brunner to provide county elections boards with the names of newly registered voters whose voter registration forms don’t match DMV records.

Over 600,000 new voters have registered in Ohio this year. But it appears from the ruling that Brunner has already identified the mismatches from that group. The ruling notes that if the Secretary of State’s office found a mismatch, it would send the county board of elections a letter saying that the voters’ eligibility could not be confirmed. Then, “the Secretary required unconfirmed voter records to be updated and resent to the Secretary for another effort to validate them with the [Bureau of Motor Vehicle] records.” But at a certain point, for reasons that are unclear, the communication between the Secretary of State’s office and the county election officials appears to have ceased.

The court’s decision will require Brunner to provide local elections officials with easily accessible county-by-county lists of mismatched voters for whom there were discrepancies between the information on their registration forms and other government documents.

The court didn’t spell out what the counties must do with the information on mismatches. It’s illegal for election officials to unilaterally remove voters from the rolls this close to an election, but voting-rights advocates fear that the information could allow some counties to mount challenges to voters whose records don’t match up, even if the mismatch is the result of nothing more than a typographical error, and force them to cast a provisional ballot — “disenfranchised by a typo,” as Michael Waldman of the Brennan Center, a voting-rights activist group, puts it.

But it appears unlikely that large numbers of challenges will result from the ruling. The Ohio Secretary of State has the power to set a uniform standard for what counties should do when confronted with a mismatch, according to Carrie Davis, a lawyer with the ACLU. And Brunner — like officials in 46 other states, say experts — has consistently said that a simple mismatch is not grounds for knocking voters off the rolls.

Could some GOP county election officials try to ignore that directive, and impose a harsher standard? Possibly, but every challenge would be voted on by the board, made up of two Republicans and two Democrats. Brunner herself would cast the tie-breaking vote.

So at this point, it’s far from clear how many eligible voters will be removed from the rolls thanks to the court’s decision last night.

Part of the concern among voting-rights advocates has to do with the timing of the decision. They say that, with only three weeks until election day, there’s little time for election officials to clear up the mismatches, creating potential confusion and delays on election day if, in the end, significant numbers of voters are challenged. In addition, the court makes clear that any voter registered in the last year — over 600,000 — must be verified.

By contrast, in Florida, where courts ruled earlier this year that a similar “no-match, no vote” standard can obtain, it applied only to voters registered in the last few months. And because the court made its ruling earlier in the cycle, there’s been more time for election officials to sort out discrepancies.

Still, in a sense, this is really the result of an earlier legislative win for the GOP. Thanks largely to the efforts of congressional Republican “vote-fraud” hawks like Senators Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Kit Bond, HAVA, the sweeping federal voting law enacted in the wake of the Florida 2000 fiasco, imposed a more restrictive standard in terms of verifying new voters’ information. Arguing in the courts for that law to be strictly upheld is hardly an underhanded strategy, even if there are good arguments for a more liberal interpretation of the law.

So the GOP’s voter suppression efforts have simply become more sophisticated. Instead of — or really, in addition to — ground-level efforts to use misinformation to intimidate and confuse voters at the polls — they’ve gotten the courts to uphold a newly restrictive standard on verifying voters’ eligibility.

Or, put more simply: Republican voter suppression has gone legit.

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