WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Conservative U.S. Supreme Court justices were joined by liberal Stephen Breyer on Wednesday in signaling sympathy toward Ohio’s policy of purging infrequent voters from registration rolls — a practice critics say disenfranchises thousands of people — in a pivotal voting rights case.
The nine justices heard about an hour of arguments in Republican-governed Ohio’s appeal of a lower court ruling that found that the policy violated a federal law aimed at making it easier for Americans to register to vote. The 1993 National Voter Registration Act bars states from striking registered voters “by reason of the person’s failure to vote.”
Indicating he potentially could join the court’s conservatives in a ruling upholding Ohio’s policy as lawful, Breyer noted that a state needs tools to clean up its voter rolls.
“What are they supposed to do?” he asked Paul Smith, the lawyer representing plaintiffs who challenged the policy and argued that voting should not be a “use it or lose it” right.
Other liberal justices including Sonia Sotomayor asked questions indicating skepticism toward Ohio’s policy. The court has a 5-4 conservative majority.
“The reason for purging is they want to protect voter rolls,” said Justice Anthony Kennedy, a conservative who often casts the deciding vote in close decisions. “What we’re talking about is the best tools to implement that purpose.”
States try to maintain accurate voter rolls by removing people who have died or moved away. Ohio is one of seven states, along with Georgia, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, that erase infrequent voters from registration lists, according to the plaintiffs who sued Ohio in 2016.
They called Ohio’s policy the most aggressive. Registered voters in Ohio who do not vote for two years are sent registration confirmation notices. If they do not respond and do not vote over the following four years, they are purged.
The Supreme Court’s ruling, due by the end of June, could affect the ability to vote for thousands of people ahead of November’s midterm congressional elections.
The arguments zeroed in on whether a state could send a registration confirmation notice based merely on a person’s failure to vote, which the plaintiffs argued is barred by federal law.
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, both conservatives, suggested that a person’s failure to vote could be used as evidence for possible…