President Trump’s Department of Justice (DOJ) flipped positions in a significant voting rights case headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing Monday that Ohio should be able to purge thousands of voters from the rolls who haven’t participated in recent elections. Voting advocates said the move lays the groundwork for massive voter purges across the country.
The case before the Supreme Court next term was filed by Ohio resident Larry Harmon who found out when he tried to vote in a local election in 2015 that he was no longer registered. Harmon hadn’t voted since 2008, and he learned he was one of roughly 1.2 million people purged from Ohio’s rolls for “infrequent voting.”
In a court filing Monday, four DOJ attorneys wrote that the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) allows states like Ohio to remove voters from the rolls after it sends them a notice alerting them that they will be purged.
“Ohio sends [NVRA] address-verification notices to registrants who have not voted or engaged in other ‘voter activity’ for two years,” the DOJ said in its amicus brief. “Consistent with [the NVRA], registrants are removed from the rolls if they fail to respond to the notice and then fail to vote for an additional four-year period including two general federal elections.”
Last September, a federal appeals court sided with Harmon, ruling that Ohio’s purge violated the NVRA. Harmon was allowed to cast a ballot in the November presidential election. But Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted (R), a conservative who has helped to spread the myth of voter fraud, appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, which decided at the end of May to take up the case next term.
“The Department of Justice’s latest reversal of its position in a critical voting rights case represents just the latest example of an agency whose leadership has lost its moral compass.”
When the case was before the Sixth Circuit, the Obama administration’s DOJ sided with the American Civil Liberties Union and other voting rights groups that filed the lawsuit on behalf of Ohio voters. But since Trump took office, the Justice Department has become more hostile to voting rights, and made the atypical move of switching positions in the case.
Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School and a former DOJ attorney, wrote in a blog post that “it’s quite rare for the DOJ to change course after a filing a brief in the court of appeals.” He also noted that typically, both career attorneys and political appointees would sign onto a brief, but the signatures on this one do not include any career civil rights attorneys.
Other voting rights advocates have also denounced the federal government’s brief. Kristen Clarke, the president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, said in a statement that she condemns the decision to obstruct voting rights.
“The Department of Justice’s latest reversal of its position in a critical voting rights case represents just the latest example of an agency whose leadership has lost its moral compass,” she said. “The law hasn’t changed since the Department accurately told the Court that Ohio’s voter purge was unlawful. The facts haven’t changed. Only the leadership of the Department has changed.”
Kira Lerner is a political reporter at ThinkProgress.org.