Use it or Lose it: Ohio’s Voter Purge Law Targets College Students, Marginalized Groups

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On June 11, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the legality of Ohio’s highly controversial “use it or lose it” voter purge law. The 5-4 ruling was split evenly along ideological lines, with conservative justices ruling in favor of the law. Liberal justices, however, argued that it violates federal policies meant to protect the rights of marginalized voters.

[Above: Members of the Andrew Goodman Foundation participate in the 11th annual Moral March, which protests discriminatory state laws, in Raleigh, N.C., in February 2017.]

Under this statute, registered voters who fail to participate in an election are sent a postcard from the state to verify they still live at the address under which they are registered. Those who fail to return this notice and don’t vote for another four years are automatically removed from Ohio’s voter rolls. 

Many legal experts and equal rights activists say this method violates federal laws dictating that individuals not be prohibited from voting simply because of their failure to participate in elections. Furthermore, they argue this tactic specifically targets people of color, those who are low-income, and — according to some — college students. 

Lonna Atkeson
Lonna Atkeson

The people most likely to lose their voter status under this law are those who vote infrequently and relocate often, says Lonna Atkeson, PhD, a political science professor and head of the University of New Mexico’s Center for the Study of Voting, Elections, and Democracy. This means young people — especially college students — are particularly at risk because they have low voter registration and turnout rates. In addition, they tend to change residences frequently during their undergraduate years.  

While every state has a process for removing inactive voters from its rolls, most only do so after many years or after receiving verification that a person has died or moved away, Atkeson explains. The process in most states for removing a voter believed to have relocated occurs only when the state receives notice — typically via the postal service or other federal database — that the individual’s address has changed. In Ohio, however, if a person fails to vote in a single election, the state assumes that individual may have moved and thus sends the postcard to verify their address; should they not return the card and fail to vote in the next two elections, they will need to re-register. 

“If a person has actually moved away from [their district], that’s a legitimate reason for being removed from the rolls,” Atkeson explains. “What we should worry about is the people who stay in the same area and don’t realize they need to update their information.”

Ohio’s methods for contacting inactive voters is also problematic as young people are far less likely to read their mail, even if they were to receive the postcard at the correct address. “It’s really a double whammy for college students who may move just a block away or are still in the same precinct but miss the [postcard] somehow,” says Atkeson. 

Although Ohio’s law disproportionately affects populations that are already at risk of being disenfranchised, Atkeson believes it is unlikely that a large number of residents will actually be purged from the state’s rolls. While three election cycles is a far shorter period than that of other states, it still gives voters six years to check their registration status and re-register if necessary, she points out. 

“I think a really small amount of people would get caught by this, but it’s definitely one of the most restrictive [state voter laws],” Atkeson says. 

Voter rights advocates, however, worry the Supreme Court’s endorsement of Ohio’s law will lead other states to enact similar policies. 

“If [this ruling] is anything like what happened in 2013 when the Supreme Court restricted parts of the Voting Rights Act, then you can assume other states will follow suit,” says Jessica Brown, media professional in residence at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Communication. In the 2013 case Shelby County v. Holder, conservative justices ruled to eliminate portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that required federal approval of voting laws in states and districts that have a history of suppressing black voters. The requirement had been a central tenet of the act, which was created to overcome legal barriers that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote. 

In response, those districts and states formerly covered by the mandate have since instituted more restrictive voter laws. In North Carolina, the legislature passed such a measure less than two months after the Shelby County v. Holder decision. However, a lower court deemed the state’s law unconstitutional, claiming in the ruling that it acted with “almost surgical precision” to suppress African American voters. Lawmakers there have since introduced an amendment to the state constitution that would allow them to circumvent this ruling.

Brown says preventing suppressive laws such as these is why it is imperative that students are civically engaged and can exercise their right to vote. She recently wrote an article for HuffPost in which she details the impediments students face when it comes to registering and showing up at the ballot box on Election Day. Like Atkeson, Brown says college students’ transient lifestyles put them more at risk of losing their voter status under policies like the one in Ohio.  

“If a student takes five or six years to complete a degree, if they’re transferring schools, moving out of state, living in a dorm, or traveling abroad, all of those things start to become a problem when you have a rule like the one in Ohio,” Brown explains. “Two or three years could easily go by where you’ve missed a couple of elections, changed addresses, and don’t even realize you’re about to lose your vote.”

Furthermore, students often have to contend with issues such as busy schedules, no mode of transportation, and complex rules about how to register and where to vote. This is particularly true for those who have moved away from home or to another state.  

Under federal law, students in all states have the option to register either at their permanent address — typically their parents’ home — or in the district where they attend school, provided they meet all other residency requirements for that district. But registration and voting policies can vary widely from state to state as well as county to county, and Brown says obtaining proper documentation to register, such as a local utility bill verifying your current address, is not always possible. Ohio’s voter purge law only serves to compound all of these issues.  

Some people have responded to Brown’s HuffPost article with criticism at the idea that strict voter purge laws are more likely to affect college students. “Some of the feedback from the [article] was basically saying that if a person is smart enough to go to college, then they should be smart enough to vote, and it’s on them to make sure they don’t get purged,” Brown says. “I understand that premise, … but college students have different lifestyles than other groups of people. It can be hard enough for a student to have to travel somewhere to vote when they have six classes and two part-time jobs — and then have to stand in line for two hours on [Election Day].”  

Regardless of a person’s political stance, Brown says there is no denying that laws like Ohio’s discriminate against certain populations. “For me, it’s a data issue. If you have data saying these are the groups of people that match the criteria [for who will be purged] and those groups tend to be oppressed or disenfranchised, then of course it looks like you’re targeting those [people],” she says. 

Maxim Thorne
Maxim Thorne

Maxim Thorne, JD, managing director of the Andrew Goodman Foundation (AGF), says his organization firmly believes that Ohio’s legislation is targeted at minority populations and college students. AGF, which is named for a young voting rights activist who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964, is dedicated to increasing voter registration and civic participation among college students. Thorne says AGF members in Ohio have been “working around the clock” to ensure students are “educated on the [voter law] and know how to protect themselves from being purged” before the midterm elections in November. 

The foundation’s four Ohio chapters.— located at Bowling Green State University, Case Western Reserve University, Miami University, and the University of Dayton — are currently focused on informing students of the purge policy and helping them check their registration status. If a student has been removed from the rolls, AGF helps them understand the steps necessary to re-register — a burdensome process in itself, Thorne says. 

AGF student members at Bowling Green State University help members of the campus community register to vote in time for Ohio’s May 2018 primary election.
AGF student members at Bowling Green State University help members of the campus community register to vote in time for Ohio’s May 2018 primary election.

“Ohio has some onerous residency requirements because they don’t, for example, consider dormitories as appropriate residences. If a student lives in a dorm and they want to register to vote, they have to bring either a utility bill or a [tuition statement] to prove they are a resident,” he says. 

According to Thorne, several states have adopted similar regulations in recent years; however, AGF chapters have been successful in eradicating some of these. In Louisiana, for example, AGF members helped mobilize their campus communities to demand that the state accept student ID cards under its voter ID requirements. By organizing campus awareness events, rallies at the state senate, and other events, they were able to get the policy overturned. 

Additionally, AGF students, along with the League of Women Voters, were recently part of a successful lawsuit against Florida’s secretary of state for declaring it illegal to allow early polling sites on college and university campuses. The judge in that case said the secretary’s action revealed a “stark pattern of discrimination” against young voters.    

Thorne believes these cases demonstrate how imperative it is for students to be vigilant in order to protect and ensure their right to vote. 

“Our fear coming out of Ohio is that states controlled by people interested in denying others the right to vote will now be [enacting] regulations like [the voter purge law],” he says. “This tactic of deliberately denying people the right to vote — in particular, people of color and young people — is something we’ve seen an upswing in [recently] that we haven’t seen since the ’50s and ’60s.” 

Thorne hopes colleges and universities, human rights groups, and dedicated student activists like those in AGF can work together to raise awareness about the growing threat to voter rights. 

“Young people should know that in 1964 and throughout the civil rights movement, people were being killed for trying to secure the right to vote, and what we have seen in the last five years [since Shelby County v. Holder] is states re-enacting barriers similar to those in the past,” he says. “Young people need to mobilize to get their voices heard and to get out and vote.”●

Mariah Bohanon is the associate editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity. This article was published in our September 2018 issue.