By Andrew Chung
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court returns to the issue of voting rights on Wednesday as the justices hear arguments over whether Ohio's policy of purging infrequent voters from its registration rolls disenfranchises thousands of people and violates federal law.
The nine justices are set to hear an hour of arguments in Republican-governed Ohio's appeal of a lower court ruling that found the policy violated a 1993 federal law aimed at making it easier to register to vote. The Supreme Court's ruling, due by the end of June, could affect the ability to vote for thousands of people ahead of November's midterm congressional elections.
States try to maintain accurate voter rolls by removing people who have died or moved away. Ohio is one of seven states, along with Georgia, Montana, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, that purge infrequent voters from registration lists, according to plaintiffs who sued Ohio in 2016.
They called Ohio's policy the most aggressive. Registered voters in Ohio who do not vote for two years are sent registration confirmation notices. If they do not respond and do not vote over the following four years, they are purged.
Ohio's policy would have barred more than 7,500 voters from casting a ballot in the November 2016 election had the Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals not intervened.
Voting rights has become an important theme before the Supreme Court. In two other cases, the justices are examining whether electoral districts drawn by Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin and Democratic lawmakers in Maryland were fashioned to entrench the majority party in power in a manner that violated the constitutional rights of voters. The practice is called partisan gerrymandering.
The plaintiffs suing Ohio, represented by liberal advocacy group Demos and the American Civil Liberties Union, said that purging has become a powerful tool of voter suppression.
Democrats have accused Republicans of taking steps at the state level, including laws requiring certain types of government-issued identification, intended to suppress the vote of minorities, poor people and others who generally favor Democratic candidates.
A 2016 Reuters analysis found roughly twice the rate of voter purging in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods in Ohio's three largest counties as in Republican-leaning neighborhoods.
The plaintiffs include Larry Harmon, a software engineer and U.S. Navy veteran who was blocked from voting in a state marijuana initiative in 2015, and an advocacy group for the homeless. They said Ohio's policy ran afoul of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which prohibits states from striking registered voters "by reason of the person's failure to vote."
But Ohio argued that a 2002 U.S. law, called the Help America Vote Act, contained language that permits the state to enforce its purge policy. Republican Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted noted that the state's policy has been in place since the 1990s, under Republican and Democratic secretaries of state.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)