Purging voter rolls to suppress turnout

The U.S. Solicitor General has taken the unusual step of reinterpreting a 24-year-old federal statute specifically designed to convenience voting in order to switch sides in a pending Supreme Court case that centers on Ohio’s aggressive purging of voter rolls. The Trump Justice Department now sides with Ohio, which contends that not voting for six years – and then not responding to a single mailing asking the voter to confirm his or her registration – is sufficient to remove that person from state voter rolls.

That should cause no small amount of alarm. It’s part of a broader effort by the Trump administration to restrict voting rights under the guise of fighting fraud, which is nearly non-existent. The true purpose is to keep from the polls individuals who are less likely to support Republican candidates or causes. And it’s a potential stake through the heart of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993, also known as the “Motor Voter Act,” which was meant to expand, not shrink, the nation’s voter registration rolls.

Critics contend that there are too many individuals on voter rolls who should not be there, including people who moved away or perhaps even died, and that’s absolutely true. But it’s one thing to clean up the rolls in a surgical manner and quite another to make wholesale dumps that inevitably harm legitimate voters. The motor voter law specifically bans the practice of purging for failing to vote. The administration now contends that not responding to a mailed notice after failing to vote is another matter altogether.

The problem with that argument is one of magnitude. Finding the names of dead people on voter rolls sounds horrible, but it’s seldom of consequence and more akin to phone books failing to purge disconnected numbers. Might someone attempt to impersonate such an absent voter? There have been documented cases of voter impersonation, but there are a true rarity. Far more likely is for local residents to show up to vote in an election and find themselves erroneously purged, which is exactly what happened to Florida Gov. Rick Scott when he attempted to vote in 2012 only to find he’d been deleted from the registration lists because someone named Richard E. Scott who was born on the same day as the governor had died six years earlier.

If it can happen to a Republican governor, what about low-income individuals who change addresses far more frequently or who find it difficult to take the time and trouble to respond to a mailing from the local election board?

Republicans have been crusading to suppress votes for years, but no one has been more brazen or misleading about the effort than Donald Trump who has claimed that millions of people voted illegally last November without an iota of evidence to back it up, a truly extraordinary (and potentially de-legitimatizing) claim by an election’s winner. Members of the president’s voter integrity commission, which held its first official meeting just last month, have already come under fire for raising unwarranted public fears of voting fraud while completely ignoring the legitimate threat of computer hackers. Instead of claiming undocumented immigrants are stealing elections or pressuring states to more aggressively purge their rolls, they ought to be focused on the actual vulnerabilities in the system, including out of date voting machines.