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Take steps today to protect your voting rights in Ohio: Andre Washington (Opinion)

October 9, 2018

Take steps today to protect your voting rights in Ohio: Andre Washington (Opinion)

Ohio’s aggressive practice of purging registered voters from the rolls for failure to vote is an abhorrent policy and threatens to shut out countless qualified voters in our state. It calls into question the legitimacy of the state’s democracy.

In Ohio, registered voters who do not vote in a two-year period are sent a mailing asking them to confirm their address. If they do not respond to the mailing or vote in the subsequent four years, they are purged from the rolls. Represented by Dēmos and the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, the Ohio chapter of the A. Philip Randolph Institute — an organization of black trade unionists and community activists — has been fighting these purges in court since 2016.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court held that Ohio’s practice of targeting infrequent voters for removal from the registration rolls was lawful, but that does not make the practice right. Year after year, Ohio has purged eligible voters for not voting frequently enough. Each of the people purged had properly registered to vote and the state had verified the eligibility of each of these registrants at the time it received their voter registration application.

During voter registration drives that members of the A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI) Ohio conduct in communities with low registration and turnout rates, we often meet people who believe they are registered to vote but whose names do not appear on the voter rolls.

For the last two years, court-ordered relief has prevented infrequent, but eligible, purged voters — like the individuals our members interact with — from being disenfranchised. This relief required that the state count provisional ballots cast in person by people purged since 2011 if the voter continued to reside in the county where they were last registered. It is possible — though not certain — that similar relief could be in place this November as well.

Despite the Supreme Court’s holding, our fight against Ohio’s purge of infrequent voters continues in federal court.

The reason for this?

Federal law requires that before voters can be purged pursuant to a program like Ohio’s, they receive a notice containing specific information, including the consequences of failing to respond to the notice. However, in Ohio, every registrant who was removed for not voting — and many who are currently in the queue to be removed — did not receive proper notice.

Until 2016, no voter was ever informed that the consequence of failing to respond to the notice or vote in the subsequent four-year period would be removal from the registration rolls. As a result, each removal has been (or will be) illegal.

Given the serious flaws that exist with the notice sent to Ohio voters, it is not at all surprising that people who have been purged for not voting often do not learn that their names have been removed from the voter rolls until they show up at the polls and try to cast a ballot. At that point, it is typically too late.

And, because people who are already traditionally marginalized — i.e., people of color, low-income individuals, people with disabilities, and language minorities — face greater obstacles in making it to the polls or casting their ballots, practices like Ohio’s threaten to disproportionately exclude such individuals from the political process.

For example, a Reuters study examining purges conducted since 2012 in Hamilton County, Ohio found that more than 10 percent of voters were removed based on their failure to vote in majority black neighborhoods near downtown Cincinnati, compared to only 4 percent who were purged for this reason in a suburban, majority-white neighborhood.

Per the Ohio Secretary of State’s own records, 199 elections in the state have been decided by one vote or tied in the past five years — 59 of those elections have taken place in 2018 alone.

Each time a voter is shut out of an election, it has the potential to change the decision on who and what laws govern. As was aptly noted by Justice Sonia Sotomayor in her dissent in the Supreme Court case, “Our democracy rests on the ability of all individuals, regardless of race, income, or status to exercise their right to vote.” When those who are already too often shut out of the political process are prevented from exercising this fundamental right, the basic pillars of our democracy crumble.

After today, Ohio will close registration for the Nov. 6 general election.

With this last day to register upon us, and the threat of future disenfranchisement looming, it is imperative that Ohio voters today take a moment to check their registration status, make sure that they are registered at their present address, and re-register now if necessary. Taking these simple steps will help protect the right of Ohio voters to participate in this November’s election.

Andre Washington has been president of the Ohio A. Philip Randolph Institute for nearly a decade, organizing voter registration drives across the state and actively advocating on behalf of Ohio voters.

To register to vote or update your address or other information: Go to MyOhioVote.com/VoterRegistration to register online or update an existing registration. Voter registration forms can also be printed from MyOhioVote.com or obtained from a local library or board of elections office. 

To check your voter-registration status: Visit MyOhioVote.com/VoterToolkit to check your voter registration status. You can also use this site to find your polling location, view a sample ballot, or track your absentee ballot. 

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