COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — President Donald Trump's administration has reversed the government's position on a voter roll case before the U.S. Supreme Court and is now backing Ohio's method for purging voters.
Ohio's system for removing inactive voters from the rolls does not violate the National Voter Registration Act, the Justice Department said Monday.
The government's filing said it reconsidered its position following the change in administrations. The Justice Department under President Barack Obama said Ohio's method was prohibited.
Ohio's process involves a three-part test that starts with voters who haven't cast ballots in two years, then fail to respond to a notice trying to verify their address, and then fail to vote for an additional period of two federal elections.
As a result, the Justice Department said, "Registrants who are removed in part because they failed to respond to an address-verification notice are not removed solely for nonvoting."
The Supreme Court said in May it would hear the case.
The Justice Department's filing is supported by the text, context and history of the National Voter Registration Act, said agency spokeswoman Lauren Ehrsam.
"The question is what states are allowed to do in order to maintain their voter registration records — not what they are required to do," she said Tuesday. "A ruling in Ohio's favor would simply uphold a practice already in use in many states without requiring any state to change how it maintains its rolls."
Civil liberties groups are challenging the state's program for removing thousands of people from voter rolls based on their failure to vote in recent elections. Those groups say Ohio was unfairly disenfranchising eligible Ohio voters.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the New York-based public advocacy group Demos sued Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted over the practice. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled last year that the process violates the national voting law.
Following that decision, a federal district court entered an injunction for the November 2016 presidential election that allowed more than 7,500 Ohio voters to cast a ballot.
The ACLU called the Justice Department's decision disappointing, saying the agency has consistently rejected the notion of purging people from rolls just for voting infrequently.
"We have a Justice Department that's supposed to be protecting and expanding people's ability to vote," Mike Brickner, senior policy director for the agency's Ohio chapter, said Tuesday. "By allowing these types of purges, that will mean people who are eligible to vote will have their registration suspended."
Husted welcomed the Justice Department's position. Several other groups, including former attorneys with the Justice Department's Civil Rights division and attorneys general from 17 states, have adopted the same position, Husted said.
"This case is about maintaining the integrity of our elections, something that will be harder to do if elections officials are not be able to properly maintain the voter rolls," said Husted, who is running for governor next year.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/andrew-welsh-huggins