STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
OK, arguments start today in a big voting rights case before the Supreme Court. The case centers on an Ohio law that is meant to clean out the state's voting registry. The law says if you don't vote in two straight elections, and if you don't respond to a letter confirming your address, you're out - can't vote. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: Larry Harmon is ticked off. He thinks the state of Ohio is trying to pull a fast one to get voters off the rolls. He normally votes in presidential election years but not the midterms. But in 2012, neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney rang his chime, so he decided not to vote. When he did decide to vote, a few years later, he found he was no longer registered. He'd been purged from the voter rolls because he hadn't voted in the previous two elections.
LARRY HARMON: I kind of got angry. I'd been paying taxes and doing all the things required of me to be a good citizen. But they had turned me away and taken away my right to vote.
TOTENBERG: He says he doesn't remember getting any sort of mailed request from the state to confirm his voting address. After all, he says, he's lived at the same address for more than 16 years. And he and his neighbors often get each other's mail.
HARMON: I don't know why they trusted the U.S. mail, you know, unless they were going to send me a registered letter.
TOTENBERG: Besides which, he notes, there are lots of other ways to check addresses - by checking tax forms, property tax listings and driver's licenses - to name just a few. I've earned the right to vote, says the Navy veteran.
HARMON: Whether I use it or not, you know, is up to my personal discretion. They don't take away my right to buy a gun if I don't buy a gun.
TOTENBERG: So he sued the state, represented by Demos, a liberal public policy organization. And he won. The lower court said that Ohio's voter purge law violates the National Voter Registration Act, better known as the motor voter law. The law is aimed at making voter registration easier. And it says that while states should take steps to keep their voting rolls up to date and accurate, they may not remove people from the rolls, quote, "by reason of a person's failure to vote."
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine declined to be interviewed for this broadcast, but the state claims that it's not using failure to vote as the reason for striking Larry Harmon and thousands of other voters from the rolls. Rather, it says, it is striking from the rolls those who do not vote for two years and who fail to confirm their registration at the same address over the next two years. Harmon and his lawyers contend that the trigger for removal is in fact the failure to vote in two consecutive elections.
Twelve states, largely controlled by Democratic officeholders, have filed briefs supporting Harmon. They all point to methods, they say, are far more effective than unregistered mail for ascertaining whether someone has changed his or her legal voting address. And they point to other reasons people may have temporarily moved but not changed their voting address, including military service. Nineteen states, largely controlled by Republican officeholders, are supporting Ohio's position though none has a law as aggressive as Ohio's in seeking to verify the voter registry. Stuart Naifeh, who will argue the case for Larry Harmon today, notes that both Democratic and Republican secretaries of state have used this system in Ohio for decades.
STUART NAIFEH: We don't believe it's a partisan case. We believe that what Ohio is doing is unlawful under the National Voter Registration Act, regardless of the party of the secretary of state.
TOTENBERG: Failure to vote is not unusual in this country. In 2016, 29 percent of the registered voters in Ohio failed to vote. And nationwide, the number was even higher - more than a third according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. Lawyers arguing against the Ohio voter purge system note that once you miss two federal elections in that state, if you go to vote and cast a provisional ballot, that ballot will not be counted because you're no longer registered. The irony is that by casting a provisional ballot and swearing to your address, you will be able to vote in the next election.
Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOEY FEHRENBACH'S "EDISON CYLINDER")
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