Every year, Ohio officials scrub an untold number of names from state voter rolls under an aggressive and, some argue, unconstitutional policy that purges people who fail to vote in consecutive elections.
Joe Helle, the Democratic mayor of Oak Harbor, a small village near Lake Erie, says he was once among the disenfranchised. On Wednesday, in a dramatic exchange at the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court, he confronted the man he says was ultimately responsible for twice barring him from casting ballots.
The moment was more than six years in the making. In 2011, Helle, an Army veteran, returned home from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and tried to vote in a local election, only to be told that poll workers couldn’t find his name. A couple months later, in the general election, he was blocked again. This time, board of elections officials revealed he had been removed from the state’s roll due to “inactivity.”
“I started crying,” Helle told The Washington Post. “To come home after defending that fundamental right and to be told that I couldn’t exercise it, that was heartbreaking.”
Ohio’s voter registration rules are some of the country’s most punitive. Voters who fail to cast ballots for two years, and then fail to confirm their address, are purged from the rolls.
Since 2011, the practice has been overseen by Secretary of State Jon Husted who, like other supporters of such measures, says it is necessary to curb fraud and ensure the integrity of the state electoral system.
But a group of Ohioans like Helle allege they were wrongfully disenfranchised under the “use-it-or-lose-it” policy, as it’s casually known. Purporting to represent thousands of others of similarly-situated Ohioans, they sued Husted in federal court, arguing the policy violates the U.S. Constitution and voting rights law. They were joined by the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and a homeless advocacy group.
On Wednesday morning, after the lawsuit climbed through the lower courts over 18 months, the Supreme Court held closely watched oral arguments in the case.
Justices peppered the attorneys representing the parties with questions about whether the policy was a reasonable and legally sound way for the state to prune its voter lists. But the real fireworks happened outside.
When Husted emerged from the building, Helle was waiting for him, flanked by supporters and camera crews.
“We believe our state is one where we make it easy to vote and hard to cheat,” Husted said, according to NPR. “We make every effort possible to reach out to voters to get them registered to vote.”
Helle, who is not a plaintiff in the litigation, pushed back.
“I never received any such notice,” he told Husted, “because I was an active-duty soldier that maintained my home of record in the state of Ohio, came back home after defending that right, and could not exercise it because of this archaic, terrible policy.”
Video of the exchange captured by Cleveland.com showed the two standing just a few feet apart as a group of onlookers watched. Husted pursed his lips as he listened to Helle talk. Helle, he said, didn’t seem to grasp the policy.
“All you have to do is use your right to vote,” Husted said.
“From a mountainside, sir?” responded Helle, a former airborne infantry sergeant.
Husted told him the registration process took only minutes.
“What about soldiers serving overseas anywhere in the world, riding around in a Humvee, conducting missions 20 hours a day?” Helle asked. “What I know is that I was wrongfully purged.”
“You weren’t wrongfully purged,” Husted said. He then walked off, with Helle and several people behind him chanting “shame.”
As political theater, it seemed to work well for the 31-year-old veteran-turned-politician, who recently announced that he was running for the Ohio House of Representatives, hoping to unseat a Republican incumbent. But Helle, who was elected mayor of Oak Harbor in 2015, said his affiliation with the voter purge case was a “pure accident.”
When he learned he was removed from Ohio’s rolls in 2011, “nobody really cared about the issue,” he told The Post. Years later, after putting the issue behind him, he stumbled across a Facebook post about the Supreme Court case and left a comment saying he had been purged. The left-leaning interest group Progress Ohio took notice, as did the ACLU, he said. Soon after, the calls started coming in from news organizations and advocacy groups.
His trip to Washington on Wednesday was paid for by an organization affiliated with one of the plaintiffs, he said. He woke up at 2 a.m., drove two hours to the airport in Detroit for a predawn flight. By late morning, he was on Capitol Hill.
Before his confrontation with Husted, he gave a short speech about voting rights outside the high court. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, joined him in front of the portico, where he told reporters his state was engaging a “wholesale eliminating names of people who have served our country or people who haven’t.”
Voter fraud is rare in both Ohio and nationwide. Probes of supposed voting irregularities routinely fail to turn up evidence of widespread or even marginal instances of it. In Ohio, Husted’s own review referred a mere 52 cases of possible fraud for prosecution or further investigation, as Cleveland.com reported.
Helle, who returned to Oak Harbor late Wednesday, said he was glad for the chance to “look this gentleman in the eye that’s driving the cart and ask him why this is worth removing servicemen and women from voter rolls.”
“The secretary of state,” he said, “is out of touch.”