It is common practice across the nation to update voter rolls to account for people moving or becoming deceased, though only a handful of states engage in voter purging on the grounds of inactivity. Ohio is one such state that purges from its voter rolls those who have not voted in recent elections, which they define as having missed the prior three consecutive federal elections.
On the one hand, if people do not express an intent to vote, it may at first blush seem not to impose a harm. However, if they do choose later to vote and realize that they are no longer registered (as occurred in the context of a marijuana initiative in November 2015), they are then disenfranchised. What’s more, voters are struck from the rolls in Democrat-leaning regions of the state (often poorer and with higher percentages of minorities) at approximately double the rate as are voters in Republican-leaning regions, though it is worth emphasizing that both Democratic and Republican officials have purged inactive voters over the years.
States have across the nation enacted or sought to enact a number of new restrictions with respect to voter registration and casting votes, with at least 180 restrictive voting bills introduced in 41 states in 2011 and 2012 alone. The Brennan Center reports that as of March 25, 2016, though 422 bills were introduced to enhance voting access, at least 77 bills to restrict access had been introduced in 28 states, largely emphasizing photo identification. The voting laws being enacted in various states (e.g., Texas, North Carolina) tend to be centered around discussions as to voter fraud versus voter suppression. Those putting forth arguments pertaining to voting fraud tend to emphasize maintaining the integrity of the election process so that people are not casting votes when they are not entitled to do so, whether because they do not live there, have been disenfranchised due to ex-offender status, or have already voted. Those on the other end of the spectrum call attention to the infrequency of actual voter fraud incidents – with one comprehensive investigation finding only 31 cases of voter fraud in one billion votes cast – along with the disproportionate burden that voter ID laws have on minorities and the poor, as well as the limited incentive to commit the felony of fraud given the virtual impossibility of casting a decisive vote.
The Brennan Center for Justice reported that as of the 2006 election, 416,744 voters (5.3% of the total registrants) in Ohio were deleted from the rolls in 2006. The distribution of voter purging across counties and over time is highly varied, they report, with 20,353 removed from the rolls of Franklin County between 1998-99 and 170,000 removed from the rolls of Cuyahoga County in 2001-02. For perspective, these are the Democratic strongholds of the state, with Franklin County containing Columbus and a total of 1.212 million people and Cuyahoga County containing Cleveland and a total of 1.263 million people.
Ohio is one of the main battleground states in American elections, having voted for President Obama in 2008 and 2012 but with George W. Bush garnering 118,775 votes more than did John Kerry in 2004 (out of 5,625,613 votes cast in the state), with the state ultimately determining the election. For those of you not keen on math, that is less than a third (28.5%) the number of people purged from the Ohio rolls in 2006. While some of the voter purging may well have been justified on the grounds of change of address or other factors making the individual no longer eligible to vote in that region, a nontrivial number were purged due to inactivity.
While Ohio Secretary of State John Husted says that this policy helps to keep lists current, one has to wonder what the actual cost is to having a longer voting list in the system, given that states are already checking for change of address and death. If lawfully registered, the cost of keeping on the rolls those who are not frequent voters is having a longer list in the system, meaning voter information guides are being sent to people who may or may not care, and poll workers may need to sort through more names on Election Day to find those seeking to vote. The benefit is preserving the constitutional right to vote for those entitled to do so, and at a more cynical level, avoiding the bad PR that comes with disproportionately reducing the voter registration of the poor and minorities.
Husted argues that if voting is so important to an individual, it would be reflected in their past voting behavior: “If this is a really important thing to you in your life, voting, you probably would have done so within a six-year period.” It is on this basis that Ohio is working to purge from its list the tens of thousands who have not voted since 2008. Yet missing the last two presidential elections is not unheard of, and the issues of racism and terrorism are sufficiently heated today that setting aside both of the presumptive candidates’ high unfavorables, one might feel that the current stakes are high enough to justify new political participation. Ohio’s turnout in 2012 was lower than that in 2008, and in both elections, there was a sufficient presumption of a large margin of victory that one might have sat out the election. Moreover, long lines at polling places, particularly in urban regions, may have dissuaded people from voting (particularly for those working on an hourly basis and thus unable to take off more time), thus giving a false impression of disengagement. This is all speculative, of course, but there are enough open questions to require that we give serious consideration before making such a strong assumption about those individuals’ interest in voting.
Some have made claims as to the normative desirability of higher if not universal political participation, while others are more skeptical as to the merits of enforcing higher turnout among those who are uninterested and/or uninformed. Regardless of where one stands with regard to how politically active one should be in their government, the Constitution’s provision of the right to vote does not come with fine print caveats of “use it or lose it.” While some might look down on someone not being engaged in previous elections, one should celebrate one coming to the party today rather than punishing someone by precluding them from exercising their constitutional right.
If states are going to remove voters for inactivity, they should allow same-day registration so as to ensure that those voters, conditional upon eligibility (age, address, identification), may indeed cast their ballot in the given election. But imposing complex rules opens the door increasing election irregularities that may not be at all nefarious, but rather reflections of complex election laws, limited voter information, and limited poll-worker training to manage questions and concerns about such issues as the proper use of provisional ballots, language assistance, disability assistance, the ability to request versus require photo identification, what have you. The headache of providing safeguards against wrongful purging is likely worse than that caused by a voter roll that includes both active and infrequent voters.