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An ideologically split U.S. Supreme Court has upheld Ohio's controversial use-it-or-lose-it voting law. It allows the state to automatically purge people from its list of registered voters if they fail to vote for two consecutive elections and fail to return a mailed postcard confirming their address. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg has more.
NINA TOTENBERG, BYLINE: The challenge to Ohio's voter purge law was brought by software engineer Larry Harmon, who usually votes only in presidential elections. In 2012, though, he didn't like the Obama, Romney choice so he stayed home. And when he went to vote a couple of years later, he found he was no longer registered. He'd been purged from the rolls because he hadn't voted in two consecutive elections, nor had he sent back a postcard the state sent him to confirm that his address had not changed.
Harmon has lived at the same address for 16 years but doesn't ever remember receiving such a letter. So he sued the state, contending there are lots of other ways to confirm an address - checking property records, tax forms and driver's licenses to name just a few. I earned the right to vote, says the Navy veteran.
LARRY HARMON: Whether I used 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: The lower court said that Ohio's voter purge law violated the National Voter Registration Act, which says that people may not be purged from the voter rolls because of their failure to vote. But today, the Supreme Court said that Ohio is not stripping people of the right to vote solely because they fail to vote but also because they didn't return the address confirmation form.
Writing for the conservative court majority, Justice Samuel Alito pointed for support to a different federal law aimed at getting states to update their voting rolls to make them more accurate. Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the four liberal dissenters, noted that only 4 percent of Americans move outside the county they live in each year and that in 2012, Ohio identified 1.5 million registered voters, nearly 20 percent of the state's total, as likely to be ineligible because they changed address, vastly more than in other states.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor in a separate dissent pointed to the effect of today's decision on minority and poor neighborhoods. For instance, in the Cincinnati area, more than twice as many African-Americans were deleted for inactivity compared to white suburbanites. Reaction to the decision was predictably angry among voting rights advocates. Vanita Gupta is president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
VANITA GUPTA: Voting should not be a use-it-or-lose-it proposition in this country, and that's essentially what the court is allowing Ohio to do and other states could certainly follow suit now in its aftermath of this decision.
TOTENBERG: Richard Hasen, an elections expert at the University of California, Irvine, agrees that Republican-dominated legislatures may now adopt similar provisions.
RICHARD HASEN: This provides another tool for those states to remove eligible voters from the voting rolls. And that will have a disproportionate effect, likely, on voters who tend to vote for Democrats.
TOTENBERG: It could also provoke a backlash, he says, when voters are turned away at the polls. Indeed, on the day the Ohio case was argued at the Supreme Court, state officials were confronted afterwards by former Army Sergeant Joe Helle, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
SERGEANT JOE HELLE: 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.
TOTENBERG: But Jason Snead of the conservative Heritage Foundation has a different view.
JASON SNEAD: I think that the long-term effect of this will be to allow states to undertake reasonable steps to clean up their voter rolls and to maintain those voter rolls.
TOTENBERG: Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles and a former Justice Department official, notes that it costs a lot of money to mail out millions of address confirmation letters. And there are much cheaper ways of verifying addresses, from checking Social Security rolls for deaths to checking tax records for addresses.
JUSTIN LEVITT: The Ohio structure that was upheld today is kind of a relic. And states are generally moving away from that.
TOTENBERG: Maybe but today, Ohio's Secretary of State Jon Husted unabashedly urged other states to adopt the Ohio system. Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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