At Issue in Husted Case: How Are States Supposed to Keep Clean Voter Rolls?

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday in a case on voter registration list maintenance, Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute.  At issue is Ohio's procedure for removing voters from the voter registration list:

In that process, in place since 1994, the state regularly identifies those on the voter list who haven’t voted in the previous two years (including at least one federal general election), and sends them a “confirmation notice.” If the voter does not respond to the notice (and the majority do not), the voter is kept on the voter list but moved to “inactive” status, where they can still vote. If such a voter does not vote or engage in any other voter activity during the next four years, they are removed from the voter list. The primary legal question is whether this constitutes “removal … from the official list of voters … by reason of the person’s failure to vote,“ as prohibited by Sec. 8 of the NVRA.

The justices questioned what states would be able to do to maintain the accuracy of their voter registration lists if the plaintiffs were successful.  As David Becker of the Center for Election Innovation and Research explains:

Justice Breyer asked plaintiffs’ counsel, Paul Smith, “what are they [the state] supposed to do? That is, every year a certain number of people die and every year a certain number move…. All right. We don’t want them on the voter roll.” He went on to say: 

“Look, the reason I’m asking these questions is because I don’t believe Congress would have passed a statute that would prevent a state from purging a voting roll of people who have died or have moved out of the state. So I’m trying to reconcile the two. And, therefore, I ask you what the state’s supposed to do for that latter objective.” 

This is really the crux of the whole case, and the challenge with maintaining voter lists. The plaintiffs are quite right in that they don’t want anyone removed from the list who shouldn’t be, if they’re still eligible to vote and have simply chosen not to vote in some previous elections. I don’t know anyone who wants that. But the state is also right, as Justice Breyer recognizes, that accurate voter lists are essential to a functioning democracy, and that the state needs to figure out who’s moved within the state, moved out-of-state, or died, since the last election.

State and local election officials have difficult but important work to do maintaining accurate voter registration lists.  As Mr. Becker points out, interstate voter registration data sharing is one of the best ways for states to identify errors in their lists.  But states also need the ability to use other tools, such as the notice and waiting procedure used in Ohio.  Stay tuned for the release of this opinion, which will have major implications for election administration, later this term.