The supreme court appeared sympathetic on Wednesday to states that seek to prune their voting rolls by targeting people who have not voted in a while. The justices heard arguments in a case from Ohio, among a handful of states that use voters’ inactivity to trigger a process that could lead to their removal from election rolls. A ruling for Ohio could prompt other states to adopt the practice, which often pits Democrats against Republicans.
Signaling support for Ohio’s defense of the process, Justice Anthony Kennedy said states are “trying to protect their voter rolls … What we’re talking about are the best tools to implement that.” Kennedy often swings a decision that splits the conservative and liberal-leaning justices.
Justice Stephen Breyer also asked questions that suggested he could side with Ohio.
The opponents say a 1992 federal law prohibits using voting inactivity to trigger purges and that Ohio removes registered voters who are still eligible to cast their ballots. A federal appeals court had sided with the challengers.
Fierce partisan fights over ballot access are being waged across the country, with local and federal players involved. Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to suppress votes from minorities and poorer people, who tend to vote for Democrats. Republicans have argued that they are trying to promote ballot integrity and prevent voter fraud.
Under Ohio rules, any registered voters who fail to vote in a two-year period are targeted for eventual removal from registration rolls. The state asks those people to confirm their eligibility. If they do, or if they show up to vote over the next four years, they remain registered. If they do nothing, their names eventually fall off the list.
Ohio is backed by 17 other, mostly Republican, states and the Trump administration, which reversed the position of the government during Barack Obama’s presidency.