In one of several narrowly focused decisions this spring, the Supreme Court upheld Ohio’s unusually aggressive practice of purging tens of thousands of citizens from voter rolls for skipping even a single presidential election. Ohio mailed warning notices to 1.5 million voters, two-thirds of whom did not respond and thus became ineligible to vote in the next election. While Ohio’s policy is detestible, the court’s logic in upholding it is defensible. Even under the Voting Rights Act, states have plenty of room to erect hurdles for citizens who wish to cast ballots—as long as the state is able to argue, even as a pretext, that it has some motive other than excluding people on the basis of race, gender or age.
Stretching voter regulation powers to the limit, however, is contrary to the spirit of a democracy. The patchwork of election systems in the United States includes: short voting periods on workdays; an inadequate number of polling places in both urban and physically remote areas; voter ID laws that place financial burdens on those without driver’s licenses; registration deadlines up to a month before an election; and, in Florida, the requirement that ex-felons personally appeal to the governor, one at at time, to get their voting rights back.
All of these can serve to discourage citizens from political participation, and they can not-so-subtly target certain groups, including first-time voters and those who frequently change addresses for economic or other reasons. Yet trying to invalidate these policies by asking courts to find that they were adopted with discriminatory intent is a formula for endless litigation.
Raising hurdles to make it harder to vote, along with other practices like gerrymandering, reveals the real priorities of political leaders who would rather choose their voters than face a truly representative electorate.
In his dissent from the ruling upholding Ohio’s voting purge, Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote that “the purpose of our election process is not to test the fortitude and determination of the voter, but to discern the will of the majority,” as he quoted from a U.S. Senate report. That aim should guide reforms of our voting systems.
The failure to vote in a presidential election, which Ohio used to purge voters, can have many meanings, including—as is the case for many Catholics—moral objections to both candidates running. No matter how a state chooses to keep its voter rolls current, it can also provide mechanisms to avoid widespread disenfranchisement, such as allowing registration at polling places, provisional ballots or mail-based voting.
Raising hurdles to make it harder to vote, along with other practices like gerrymandering, reveals the real priorities of political leaders who would rather choose their voters than face a truly representative electorate. While such antidemocratic approaches should not be countenanced, they cannot be defeated solely in the courts. The country needs laws that affirmatively defend the right to vote; even more important, it needs political leaders who would be ashamed to do anything else.