Supreme Court decision halts Georgia voting rights lawsuit


A federal lawsuit challenging Georgia's system of removing inactive voters from the registration rolls was formally withdrawn on Tuesday after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Ohio's similar voter "purge" policy did not violate federal law.

In a 5-4 decision, the high court held that Ohio is not violating the National Voter Registration Act by sending address-confirmation notices to registered voters when they fail to vote in a federal election — and then eliminating their names from the rolls if they don’t respond and fail to vote in the next two federal elections over a four-year period.

The decision reversed a lower court ruling that found Ohio's policy violated the voter-registration law by using non-voting to trigger the confirmation notices.

In Georgia, people who haven’t voted or had contact with the elections system for three years are placed on an inactive list and then removed from the rolls altogether if they don’t respond to confirmation-of-address notices within 30 days – and then vote in the next two general elections.

Because Georgia's and Ohio's policies are so similar, the Supreme Court's decision in Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute "essentially disposes, unfavorably, of our NVRA claim," said Emmet Bondurant, lead attorney for Common Cause Georgia, which had challenged the state's voter roll maintenance efforts along with the Georgia NAACP.

Bondurant withdrew the case in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Georgia in Atlanta. The filing preserves the right of Common Cause and the NAACP to "challenge the validity of the Georgia purge statue on other grounds in a future case," Bondurant said in an email.

He said the high court's decision could leave several hundred thousand Georgia residents unable to vote in November, Bondurant said.

"After the 2016 election, they purged roughly 400,000 who therefore will not be eligible to vote in 2018 unless they have re-registered, which very few people do," Bondurant said.

Candice Broce, spokesperson for Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, said their office could not immediately confirm Bondurant's claim.

Conservatives argue that fraud by ineligible voters can occur if people who die or move away aren’t regularly identified and cleared from the registration rolls as the law requires. But voting rights advocates say the removals disproportionately impact black, Hispanic and poor voters who traditionally vote at lower rates and tend to support Democrats.

Kemp, a Republican who's running for governor, cheered the court's decision..

"This ruling affirms that common-sense measures like Georgia's voter-list maintenance statutes, which prevent fraud at the ballot box, are appropriate and necessary to ensure secure, accessible, and fair elections," Kemp said in a statement.

Common Cause and the NAACP filed their lawsuit in 2016, claiming Georgia's policy violated the National Voter Registration Act by unlawfully removing voters simply for not voting. Kemp had maintained that the lawsuit was without merit.

In a December 2015 letter to Common Cause attorneys, state lawyers representing Kemp stressed that voters aren’t being removed for not voting. Rather, “a voter is removed because they have not had any contact with election officials in Georgia for a minimum of seven years, and they have not returned a postage prepaid, pre-addressed return card to confirm their residence,” the attorneys wrote.

The policy helped fuel a rise in the number of inactive Georgia voters from nearly 714,000 in November 2012 to more than 1.3 million in September 2016. Over the same period, the number of Georgia’s registered voters dropped from more than 5.35 million to 5.17 million.

Nearly 552,000 people are currently on Georgia's inactive voter list for a number of different reasons, Broce said.

While Ohio's policy for removing voters is the most restrictive in the nation, Georgia, Oklahoma, Montana, Oregon, Pennsylvania and West Virginia have similar policies they use to maintain accurate registration lists.

Voting rights advocates have expressed concern that other states will use Monday's court decision to begin pruning their rolls more aggressively ahead of the 2018 mid-terms. They say that puts people who historically vote at lower rates at greater risk for being erroneously trimmed from the rolls or declared inactive, which would require them to re-register.

Advocates say those most likely to be affected include low-income people, minorities, disabled voters, young voters, those with language barriers and those who move frequently. Hourly workers who have difficulty making time to vote and active duty service members away for long periods of time could also be negatively affected.