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Opinion: Supreme Court Resurrects the ‘Purge,’ and McConnell Saw It Coming

Majority leader’s power move is paying off for GOP as court reaches into the voting booth

A man protests in front of the Supreme Court in January during oral arguments in a voter roll purge case out of Ohio. The court’s ruling this week breathes new life into suppression efforts, Curtis writes. (Win McNamee/Getty Images file photo)
A man protests in front of the Supreme Court in January during oral arguments in a voter roll purge case out of Ohio. The court’s ruling this week breathes new life into suppression efforts, Curtis writes. (Win McNamee/Getty Images file photo)

It was a brilliant and, opponents would say, devious move by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell: Stall, obstruct and block President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court replacement for the late Antonin Scalia.

That pick, Judge Merrick Garland, once a thoroughly acceptable and moderate choice to many Republicans, never had a chance in a ramped-up partisan atmosphere. Instead, the next president, Donald Trump, appointed conservative Neil Gorsuch, with immediate and long-lasting repercussions, this week reaching into the voting booth.

By a 5-4 vote in Husted v. A. Philip Randolph Institute, the conservatives on the court reaffirmed an Ohio law an appeals court had rejected as being a violation of the National Voter Registration Act, which says states cannot purge voters for failing to vote but can figure out how to remove those who have moved or died from the list. The state — a crucial battleground — has a particularly stringent test, using failure to vote in a single federal election cycle as the trigger to start the process.

To Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the majority, it all seems logical and legal: “We have no authority to second-guess Congress or to decide whether Ohio’s [law] is the ideal method for keeping its voting rolls up to date.” He concluded, “The only question before us is whether it violates federal law. It does not.”

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, writing her own dissent, pointed out the obvious, citing amicus briefs explaining “how low voter turnout rates, language-access problems, mail delivery issues, inflexible work schedules, and transportation issues, among other obstacles, make it more difficult for many minority, low-income, disabled, homeless, and veteran voters to cast a ballot or return a notice, rendering them particularly vulnerable to unwarranted removal.”

Studies show that Ohio’s strict rules disproportionately affect African-Americans living in the state’s urban centers.

A tell that this case is political as well as procedural was the decision by the Justice Department to switch sides, from opposing Ohio under President Obama to supporting the process under Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Trump, who took time out from his Singapore summit to tweet: “Just won big Supreme Court decision on Voting! Great news!”

Fraud fixation

Federal law prohibits Ohio’s revived rule from being enforced before November’s elections, but expect the Supreme Court’s ruling to pave the way for elections and laws to follow. Instead of promoting inclusive ideas that attract a diversity of voters, it’s often easier to devise ways to discourage the “wrong” people from voting — wrong being those unlikely to vote for your favored candidate.

Republicans and the Trump administration in particular are obsessed with the idea of voter fraud, proven repeatedly to be nearly nonexistent. Trump has consistently blamed his 2016 popular vote loss on hordes of illegal voters, even supporting the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity in spite of opposition from state officials of both parties.

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That commission, co-chaired by Kansas Secretary of State and GOP gubernatorial hopeful Kris Kobach — who has become as synonymous with the voter “purge” as the horror series of the same name — was disbanded and discredited, though its spirit is as difficult to kill as the villains of every other scary movie.

In North Carolina, a restrictive voting bill, enacted after the Supreme Court invalidated key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was seemingly dead after a federal court in 2016 threw out much of it, finding it targeted African-Americans with “almost surgical” precision.

Back from the dead

In 2018, though, a voter-ID proposal has found new life in North Carolina, as it makes its way through the state legislature, controlled by GOP super-majorities (with no veto allowed for Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper). The proposal would leave it up to November voters to decide whether or not to place a voter-ID rule in the state constitution. No details, of course, just these words: “Photo identification for voting in person. Every person offering to vote in person shall present photo identification before voting in the manner prescribed by law.”

Would more court challenges follow? North Carolina NAACP President T. Anthony Spearman, who has called this year’s General Assembly the “suppression session,” has already threatened to sue.

But such a proposal on the ballot may be enough to boost Republican turnout in the state in a midterm year when a blue wave is feared, a thought that no doubt crossed the minds of members of the state GOP.

Voting is power, which is why there has been pushback as each group in America, from women to Native Americans to African-Americans, has fought to join in this most sacred democratic right.

In the face of clinical court showdowns, those who may be tempted to give up the fight would be wise to remember earlier battles, such as that waged by civil rights leaders such as Medgar Evers, who survived World War II service only to be murdered in front of his home because of his activism 55 years ago this week, June 12, 1963, when he was 37 years old.

“Our only hope is to control the vote,” he once said. For Evers and Americans he fought for, on foreign shores and his own Mississippi soil, voting was and is much more than a game to be played for electoral advantage.

Roll Call columnist Mary C. Curtis has worked at The New York Times, The Baltimore Sun, The Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter @mcurtisnc3.

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