Washington (AFP) – A sharply divided US Supreme Court on Monday approved the practice by the state of Ohio of purging infrequent voters from their registration lists — a move civil rights groups claim disproportionately affects minorities and the poor.
In a 5-4 decision, the nation’s highest court overturned a ruling by a lower court that the practice was a violation of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).
The five justices who typically make up the conservative majority on the court backed the decision while the four liberal justices dissented.
The administration of former president Barack Obama had opposed Ohio’s process of purging voters, but Donald Trump’s administration threw its support behind the midwestern state.
Ohio sends a notice to registered voters who fail to cast a ballot over a two-year period.
If they do not respond to the notice or do not vote over the next four years, they are dropped from the registration rolls.
Ohio state officials argued that the practice is an attempt to keep the list of registered voters up to date, removing people, for example, who have moved to another state.
Half a dozen other states have similar practices.
Opponents of Ohio’s voter purge practice said federal law prohibits citizens from being penalized just for the failure to vote.
Justice Samuel Alito said the court had not been asked to rule on whether Ohio’s process “is the ideal method for keeping its voting rolls up to date.
“The only question before us is whether it violates federal law. It does not,” Alito said.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who dissented, wrote that the court had made a mistake in ignoring “the backdrop of substantial efforts by states to disenfranchise low-income and minority voters.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) described the court ruling as a “setback for voting rights.”
“Marginalized populations remain extremely vulnerable to state-sanctioned voter suppression and disenfranchisement,” said Freda Levenson, legal director at the ACLU of Ohio.
“We will continue to fight to uphold the rights of eligible voters in the 2018 midterm elections, and beyond.”
Chris Carson, president of the League of Women Voters, said the Supreme Court “got this one wrong.”
“The right to vote is not ‘use it or lose it,’ Carson said.
“This decision will fuel the fire of voter suppressors across the country who want to make sure their chosen candidates win re-election — no matter what the voters say,” Carson added.