By Hedy Weinberg and Marian Ott
Voting is the cornerstone of democracy, and it is not a “use it or lose it” right.
The ACLU and our partner Demos are at the United States Supreme Court challenging a voter purge process in Ohio, under which registered voters who do not vote during a two-year period are targeted for removal from the rolls.
This practice not only violates federal law, it generally has a disproportionate impact on voters of color and low-income voters, who tend to have lower than average turnout rates.
Until recently, Tennessee had a similar law requiring that voters who failed to vote in prior elections had their names removed — or “purged” — from the voter rolls.
One investigation found that in Davidson County alone, more than 19,000 people had been purged for inactivity over a three-year period, excluding people who were deceased or had felony convictions.
Many eligible voters who were purged reported that they were not notified and only learned that they had been unceremoniously disenfranchised when they appeared at their precinct on Election Day.
Because Tennessee does not currently offer same-day voter registration, it would be too late for these voters to re-register and they would find themselves unable to exercise their constitutionally-protected right to vote.
Then, last fall, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the practice of purging voters based on their failure to vote in prior elections, arguing that this violated the National Voter Registration Act.
The ACLU of Tennessee, the League of Women Voters of Tennessee and our partner Demos immediately took action, urging the Tennessee secretary of state and the State Election Commission to end voter purges in Tennessee once and for all.
To the great benefit of Tennessee voters, they listened. After hearing our concerns, Secretary of State Tre Hargett and Tennessee Coordinator of Elections Mark Goins worked with legislators to file legislation that eliminated the practice of purging voters based on a lapse in voting and replaced it with a process based on address changes with the post office or the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The ACLU of Tennessee, LWV of Tennessee, our thousands of members across the state commend Secretary Hargett and Mr. Goins for taking steps to protect voters from having their rights needlessly stripped away.
Our right to vote is sacred, and we are grateful that they recognized that our government’s responsibility is to allow every qualified voter to cast a ballot, not to force citizen participation.
Voting is the cornerstone of democracy, and because of our state government’s actions, democracy in our state is a little more secure today.
Voters in Ohio aren’t so lucky — their state government chose to appeal the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, risking thousands of Ohio voters’ eligibility. That case, Husted v. APRI, was heard Wednesday by the United States Supreme Court.
Our partners at the ACLU of Ohio were there, arguing that the Constitution promises that all eligible voters must be given the opportunity to cast a ballot that will be counted.
We are optimistic that the Supreme Court will wisely choose to uphold the Court of Appeals’ decision and protect the rights of Ohio voters.
At the same time, we are relieved that our own elected state officials have already taken steps to ensure that Tennessee voters are able to cast their ballots without the unnecessary hurdles this voter purging practice creates.
ACLU-TN and LWV-TN look forward to working with Secretary Hargett, Mr. Goins and the State Election Commission as we continue our legislative advocacy to ensure that all eligible voters have access to the ballot box.
Hedy Weinberg is executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee and Marian Ott is president of the League of Women Voters of Tennessee.