Imagine this scenario. Like many people, you didn’t bother voting in the last election or two, because you were busy and none of the races really interested you, or maybe you’re in the military and were stationed overseas, or maybe you just haven’t gotten around to it for a while. You vaguely remember getting a notice about your registration from the state board of elections, but you threw it away with the other junk mail. You know you’re registered, so there shouldn’t be a problem.
Then you show up to vote on the next election day, to discover that you’ve been “purged.” Because you didn’t vote for a time and you didn’t return that letter, the state has kicked you off the voting rolls.
Today, the Supreme Court said that’s just fine.
This case concerned a purge of voter rolls conducted by the state of Ohio, and the state’s relatively new practice of using people’s failure to vote as a justification for removing them from the rolls. Under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (commonly known as “motor voter” since it allowed people to register at the DMV), states are prohibited from using someone’s failure to vote as an excuse to purge them. But the five conservative justices ruled that because Ohio wasn’t using failure to vote as the only criterion to purge someone — a failure to return the notice is also required — then there’s no problem.
There’s little doubt about what’s going to happen now. Back in January, Myrna Pérez, who runs the Voting Rights and Elections project at the Brennan Center for Justice, told me that “purges are very likely to be the next big method of voter suppression.” And now, every Republican-controlled state in the country is going to start devising voter purges intended to solidify the GOP’s hold on power, if they haven’t already.
That’s what this is really about. Republicans didn’t develop an interest in purging because they have a deep and heartfelt concern that voter rolls may include extraneous entries, people who have moved or died and thus won’t show up to the polls but still take up a line in a database somewhere. They’re taking this step because voter purges — like voter ID laws, like restricting early voting, like limiting the number of polling locations — offer an opportunity to make it harder for people who might vote Democratic to cast a ballot, especially African-Americans. It’s a way to maintain power, not by governing effectively or persuading voters of their merit, but by putting a thumb on the electoral scale.
Even without that kind of “accidental” bias, voter purges can have bias built in, as Ohio’s does. The Republicans who designed it know full well that the kind of people who are more likely to vote Republican — older, wealthier, whiter — vote more often and will be less likely to get caught in the purge. That’s precisely what Reuters found in 2016 when they did an analysis of how it worked in the largest counties in Ohio:
“Voters of all stripes in Ohio are affected, but the policy appears to be helping Republicans in the state’s largest metropolitan areas, according to a Reuters survey of voter lists. In the state’s three largest counties that include Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus, voters have been struck from the rolls in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods at roughly twice the rate as in Republican neighborhoods.
“That’s because residents of relatively affluent Republican-leaning neighborhoods are more likely to vote in both congressional elections and presidential contests, historical turnouts show. Democrats are less likely to vote in mid-term elections and thus are more at risk of falling off the rolls.”
Let’s be clear: That’s the whole idea. Republicans can say they’re only concerned that voter rolls are clean and well-organized, but everyone knows that’s a lie.
When it comes to Americans and voting, there’s a simple distinction between the two parties today. Democrats want voting to be as easy as possible, and want as many people as possible to be able to vote. Republicans want voting to be as difficult as possible, and want as few people as possible to be able to vote.
You can argue that both parties are simply pursuing their self-interest, and you’d be correct. Republicans know that when they restrict voting, they’re going to benefit. Their voters are more likely to be wealthy and white, the kind of people who will be able to easily overcome whatever hurdles are placed in front of them. The voters who get shut out by their various voter suppression efforts, on the other hand, are more likely to be Democrats.
But the fact that both parties have their own interests in mind doesn’t mean that they’re on equal moral ground. And Republicans’ 5-4 victory in this case was made possible by another moral outrage: the theft of the Supreme Court seat on which Neil Gorsuch now sits. Mitch McConnell — with the support of every Republican in the Senate — simply refused to allow Barack Obama to fill a seat that became vacant nearly a year before Obama left office, for the simple reason that Obama was a Democrat.
Which is why Democrats need to do two things now. First, they should draft a bill to roll back this decision, clarifying the rules under which states can purge their voter rolls to make sure those rules are fair to everyone. As soon as they have the chance — 2021 at the earliest — they should be ready to pass that bill and have it signed into law by a Democratic president, as part of a package of reforms to ensure Americans’ voting rights.
Second, they should make clear that the theft of Gorsuch’s seat (or Merrick Garland’s, to be more accurate) will be rectified. If they gain control of the Senate and there is a Supreme Court vacancy, they should refuse to allow any justice to be appointed by President Donald Trump. Just as McConnell held that seat open until a Republican could fill it, the next seat should be held open until a Democratic president can fill it. If there are two vacancies, Trump can fill one of them. If there are three, he can fill two. But the scale must be rebalanced — for the sake of Americans’ voting rights, and so much more.
Paul Waldman is an opinion writer for the Plum Line blog. Before joining The Washington Post, he worked at an advocacy group, edited an online magazine, taught at university and worked on political campaigns.