The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States
Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.
Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce the article by appropriate legislation.
Ratified February 5, 1870
Liberal pundits across Ohio and the nation have spent the last several days bemoaning the decision of the United States Supreme Court in Husted, Ohio Secretary of State v. A. Phillip Randolph Institute. In a 5-4 decision the high court ruled that the way Ohio Secretary of State John Husted purged voters from the list of those eligible to vote was proper and did not violate the National Voter Registration Act of 1993. In plain English, you can get kicked off the voting rolls for not voting or taking some affirmative step to stay on the rolls.
In reaching the decision, Justice Samuel Alito, speaking for a majority of the Court, said that Ohio voter Larry Harmon was properly purged from the roll because he failed to vote in two consecutive elections, and he failed to return a postcard that the state sent out to confirm that his address had not changed and that he was still alive.
In his dissent, Justice Steven Breyer found that Husted’s trimming of the voter’s lists was violative of the rights guaranteed by the 15th Amendment which says that the right to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the federal or state government and that Husted’s actions violated a federal law that says that voters’ names should be removed from the rolls simply for failure to vote. Breyer also found that more than two-thirds of voters who received the card sent out to verify their address mistook the notice for junk mail and threw it out, thus causing them to lose their right to vote without knowing it.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in a separate dissent, pointed out that the ruling was particularly injurious to minority and poor neighborhoods. Citing Hamilton County, which includes Cincinnati, she noted that 10 percent of the voters removed from the voting list due to inactivity were African-American — probably because they are less affluent and move more frequently — as compared to only 4 percent in the suburban, white-majority neighborhoods.
A spokespersonfor the League of Women Voters said Monday’s decision would “fuel the fire of voter suppression across the country.”
The issue came to the high court because of the disenfranchisement of Harmon, a software engineer and Navy veteran who lives in the Akron area. For whatever reason, Harmon he says he only votes in presidential elections. He voted in 2004 and 2008 but skipped 2012 because he didn’t like either Romney or Obama. He again stayed home in 2014. In 2015 he felt so strongly about a marijuana initiative on the ballot that he decided to vote. To his surprise his name had been removed from the list of eligible voters. He filed suit.
Rather than saying “Gosh — maybe I should have voted since 2008,” Harmon argues that voting is discretionary and that skipping elections and only voting in presidential years should not make him ineligible. While this argument is consistent with a federal law passed in 1993 that says that you cannot be removed for simply failing to vote, he is also saying by way of inference that he does not care who governs his city, county or state because he doesn’t vote in those elections — election results that probably have a much more direct impact on his life than who resides at the White House.
Harmon, who has lived at the same address for the last 16 years, also says that he never received the post card sent by the secretary of state to verify his address and confirm that he was alive. He argued that the state should have taken the responsibility to determine through property records, tax forms and information from the Bureau of Motor Vehicles that he is still living at the same location.
There is no doubt that Ohio has been aggressive in its policy of purging voters. Ohio Democratic Chairman David Pepper is correct when he says that Ohio has removed millions of registered voters from the rolls under Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted in what is more likely an attempt to disenfranchise voters than a mere administrative procedure to cull the list of registered voters who have died or moved.
The problem is the high court has ruled and we must live with the decision. The good part is that citizens of Ohio can render the decision null and void — all they have to do is vote.
When I first became a voter, the hours to go to the polls were limited and you could not vote absentee unless you swore you would be out of town. You had to plan your schedule on Election Day around getting to the polls. I always remember my dad on election eves. He went to bed early so that he could get up ahead of his usual schedule, so he could stop and vote on his way to work. Now the hours are longer, you can vote at home or you can go to the board of elections, which is even open on Saturdays and Sundays for people who can’t make it during the week. How much simpler does it get?
As a society how many times and in how many languages and formats do we have to yell from the housetops that voting is important? And don’t give me the adage that my vote doesn’t count. Just ask some of the Cleveland city councilpersons who lost in last November’s municipal election by less than a handful of votes.
As a society and a nation, we have got to get off our collective rumps and figure out how we can instill the importance of voting into our fellow citizens. For the Black community, it seems simple enough — just look at the generations of disenfranchised Black voters in the South. Have we forgotten the poll taxes and literacy tests that kept black and white voters from the polls? Or the suffragettes who fought for the rights of women to get the vote?
For all the critics of the recent Supreme Court decision, it’s time to stop talking and start working. For once, Ohio voters can render the decision of the Supreme Court null and void. All you have to do is vote. If you vote you don’t get purged. We must get everyone registered to vote and then make sure they vote. If you move, make sure you get a change of address form from the board of elections and return it. Just follow the rules.
The Fifteenth Amendment was enacted for a reason — to guarantee the right to vote. But there is also a corresponding obligation on the part of citizens to go to the polls and cast their ballot. It’s time for the Larry Harmons of Ohio to realize that you wouldn’t have this bad decision by the Supreme Court if you had exercise your right. “Use it or lose it” should not be the law but is essentially what the Supreme Court ruled this week.
Ohio and Ohio voters will be the big loser if our citizens don’t figure that out.
C. Ellen Connally is a retired judge of the Cleveland Municipal Court. From 2010 to 2014 she served as the President of the Cuyahoga County Council. An avid reader and student of American history, she serves on the Board of the Ohio History Connection, is currently vice president of the Cuyahoga County Soldiers and Sailors Monument Commission and treasurer of the Cleveland Civil War Round Table. She holds degrees from BGSU, CSU and is all but dissertation for a PhD from the University of Akron.