Voting-rights advocates in California and beyond are awaiting a key U.S. Supreme Court decision that could change the way states can legally remove voters from registration rolls.
Justices will decide by June whether Ohio’s removal system, which is triggered by a voter not casting a ballot for two years, is an illegal infringement of voting rights as opponents contend.
The case is another example of the nationwide partisan fight behind voting and access to the ballot box. Democrats generally push laws and voting systems that maximize registration, while Republicans have generally attempted to eliminate suspected voter fraud through additional voter requirements.
While the case’s outcome is not likely to affect California’s system for removing voters from the rolls, the Golden State joined 11 other mostly Democratic-led states and the District of Columbia in an amicus brief that challenges Ohio’s process. Lawyers for 17 mostly Republican-led states joined the Trump administration in filing briefs in support of Ohio.
“The ability to register to vote is a fundamental right of American citizenship,” California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said in a news release. “Instituting an unjust ‘use it or lose it’ voter registration policy runs counter to the spirit of the National Voter Registration Act. The stakes of this case are high and the outcome will have national significance for years to come.”
In Ohio, voters who have failed to cast a ballot for two years receive a notice in the mail asking them to confirm their address. If a voter does not respond and does not vote for another four years, he or she is removed from the voter roll without further notice. Supporters argue the system helps prevent voter fraud and keeps voter registration records accurate. Opponents say removing voters for failing to vote is unlawful and hurts low-income voters who struggle to regularly make it to the polls.
In California, voters can be removed from the rolls if they die, request to be removed, are deemed mentally incompetent, commit a felony or move to another jurisdiction.
Otherwise, the process takes at least eight years.
California voters who have not cast ballots or updated their registration information for four years eventually receive a “residency confirmation postcard.” Failing to respond to that notice within 15 days and failing to vote for another four years removes the voter from the state’s registration list.
California voters are not removed from the rolls simply for inactivity, said Sam Mahood, press secretary for Padilla. Before sending the postcard, the state places voters in an inactive file if the state is notified the voter’s California driver license was surrendered in another state, the voter has moved out of his or her county or election mailings were returned as undeliverable, Mahood said.
Once voters are placed in the inactive file, the state is required to send the postcard to voters asking them to verify or correct their address, Mahood said. If they fail to respond and then do not vote in the next two federal elections, the voters are removed from the state registration system.
From February 2015 to January 2016, about 400,000 voters were removed from California’s registration system, bringing the number of registered voters down to about 17.3 million, according to data from the Secretary of State’s website.
In 1995, voting-rights advocates challenged California’s system, arguing that the state was removing voters for inactivity. But the court upheld the system, however, finding that the state was relying on postcards being returned as undeliverable and not on voting inactivity to begin the removal process.
Justin Levitt, professor of law at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, said that decision shows that the outcome of the Ohio case would not likely affect the system in California.
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Jan. 10 in the Ohio case, Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute. A ruling is expected by the end of June.
Billy Kobin: 916-321-1860, @Billy_Kobin