Trump DOJ's Latest Move Confirms "Worst Fears" About Voting Rights

Voter wait in line outside a polling place at the Nativity School on Election Day Tuesday Nov. 8 2016 in Cincinnati

In a rare move, the U.S. Department of Justice reversed its position on Ohio's process for maintaining voter rolls in a high-profile voting rights case before the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Just last summer, the Justice Department had affirmed in this same case, before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, its view that Ohio's voter purge practices violated federal law", said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

The court found that the voter registration notices violated that prohibition because they were triggered exclusively by the act of nonvoting.

The Trump administration supports Ohio's policy of kicking people off the voter registration rolls if they go six years without casting a ballot - which has led hundreds of thousands of people to lose their voting eligibility. Voters who haven't cast ballots for two years are sent a notice asking them to confirm their registration or update their address. Previously, the DOJ backed civil rights groups who argued the policy violated federal law.

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Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted petitioned the Supreme Court, which agreed on May 30 to review the procedure.

The American Civil Liberties Union of OH and the New York-based public advocacy group Demos sued Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted over the practice.

The law says nothing about triggers, according to the brief, and only prohibits purging of voters for nonvoting - it does not prevent states from sending notices based on nonvoting.

"Registrants are sent a notice because of that initial failure, but they are not removed unless they fail to respond and fail to vote for the additional period", attorneys wrote. In February, shortly after Jeff Sessions became attorney general, the department dropped its position in a long-running case that argued Texas meant to discriminate against minorities when it passed a strict voter-ID law.

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"Maintaining the integrity of the voter rolls is essential to conducting an election with efficiency and integrity", Husted said in a statement in May, after the Supreme Court said that it would hear the case.

J. Christian Adams, head of the Public Interest Legal Foundation and an outspoken member of the Commission on Election Integrity, has filed a friend of the court brief in a case that is weighing whether to consider voter inactivity when purging the rolls.

Over the last five years, under Secretary of State John Husted, a Republican, Ohio has purged almost 2 million voters from its rolls.

He said the Justice Department over the past 20 years have defended voter rights. 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. They argue that the law says each voter "has the right not to cast a vote - and the mere exercise of that right should not be the basis for removal from the voter rolls".

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On Monday, the Justice Department reversed its stance, arguing that the OH policy does not violate the NVRA, since "the NVRA does not prohibit a State from using non voting as the basis for sending a [confirmation] notice". Some of those voters were legitimately removed because they either died or left the state, but a 2016 investigation by Reuters found that low-income, black, Democratic voters were disproportionately purged.

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