Column: Voter purge case a civil rights matter

Hill Harper

Exercising the right to vote is our most sacred democratic right and an essential step to attaining meaningful change. Yet as we approach the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, we are still fighting for the right to vote. Attempts to disenfranchise African-Americans and other racial minorities have reached a new low. While suppression tactics may have evolved, the victims of systemic efforts to disenfranchise have not changed.

Take, for example, the massive voter purge in our neighboring state of Ohio, which is the subject of a U.S. Supreme Court case, Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, to be argued before the court next month. Voter purges have been a persistent problem in elections in the past, and Congress sought to put a stop to them when it passed the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) in 1993. This important federal law aims to encourage voter participation and prevent arbitrary purges by requiring states to keep accurate voter lists. Yet the Ohio secretary of state turned this law on its head to justify a massive voter purge that disenfranchised thousands of citizens, including African-Americans.

Next week, the Supreme Court will decide whether Ohio violated the NVRA. The case will be closely watched by those who care deeply about the right to vote.

Like Michigan, the state of Ohio has a sizable minority population and it is those citizens who too often are the targets of aggressive tactics like voter purges. According to one study, 144,000 registrations were purged in Ohio’s three most populated counties covering the cities of Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus, and African-American residents were hit the hardest. That might be because it is minority citizens who often make the difference in close elections. The special Senate election in Alabama is an example. African-Americans make up 25 percent of the population in Alabama, but comprised 29 percent of the electorate in the Dec. 12 election that delivered a win for Democratic candidate Doug Jones.

Efforts to silence these voices must be rejected. Instead, we need stronger civil rights laws to protect the right to vote and ensure our elections are administered fairly. In Detroit, thousands of voters did not have their ballots accurately counted because of faulty election equipment and human error. These are avoidable problems that must be corrected in future elections. The state is finally making a long overdue investment in new equipment, but that is just one step in the direction of progress. We must also speak out against any steps backward.

The Husted case is the next important moment in the struggle for civil rights. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a two-to-one opinion last year, concluded Ohio’s purge violated the NVRA. The Justice Department took the same position until Attorney General Jeff Sessions came in to office and reversed the Department’s stance in this important case, opening the door for purge programs across the nation. Now it is up to the Supreme Court to decide whether the NVRA prohibits states like Ohio from removing from the rolls a voter simply for failing to cast a ballot in a single election. This case may involve a purge in the state of Ohio, but a bad decision could open the floodgates for voter purges across the country. We cannot allow that to happen, especially not here in Michigan.

Hill Harper is national spokesman for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.