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Can You Lose Your Voting Rights If You Don't Vote?

right to vote in America
By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

We all know that you need to register in order to vote. But did you know that you also need to vote in order to vote? At least according to Ohio election officials you do.

Since 1994, the Ohio secretary of state's office has had a voter purge process whereby it compiles a list of registered voters who have gone two years without casting ballot and mails them a confirmation notice. If the voter neither returns the notice nor participates for the next four years, the voter will be automatically struck from the rolls.

Larry Harmon was once such voter purged from Ohio's voter rolls, and his lawsuit against the state is heading to the Supreme Court. Here's a look.

Use It or Lose It

According to the New York Times, Harmon voted in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, but skipped 2012, along with the midterm elections in 2010 and 2014. When he tried to vote again in 2015, he was told he could not vote at his normal polling place.

While federal law prohibits states from purging people from voter rolls simply "by reason of the person's failure to vote," states may send confirmation notices to a voter election officials suspect has moved. "I've been living in Ohio my whole life," Harmon told the Times, asserting he had been at the same residence 16 straight years. "I pay property taxes and income taxes. I register my car. They obviously had all the data to know that I was a resident. They could have looked it up, but they were too cheap."

Disingenuous Disenfranchisement

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Harmon, ruling Ohio officials violated the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 by using the failure to vote as a "trigger" for sending confirmation notices, and blocking the purge process before Election Day last year. That ruling allowed 7,515 voters who had been removed from the voter rolls to cast a ballot.

"In more concrete terms," the court reasoned, "a state cannot avoid the conclusion that its process results in removal 'solely by reason of a failure to vote,' by providing that the confirmation notice procedure is triggered by a registrant's failure either to vote or to climb Mt. Everest or to hit a hole-in-one." While Ohio and the federal government are defending the state's purge policy, critics say it has been unevenly applied across the political spectrum.

"Voters have been struck from the rolls in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods at roughly twice the rate as in Republican neighborhoods," according to a Reuters study last year. "Neighborhoods that have a high proportion of poor, African-American residents are hit the hardest." Now it will be in the Supreme Court's hands to determine when the purges were constitutional.

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