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Justice Department Reverses Course In Major Ohio Voting Rights Case


This week, the Trump administration reversed course in a major voting rights case in Ohio. The facts of the case didn't change, but the person in charge at the White House did. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The key issue in the case is when states can purge their lists of registered voters.


J CHRISTIAN ADAMS: This is an effort to make the voter rolls cleaner and to follow federal law.

JOHNSON: That's J. Christian Adams speaking with NPR last year. And for conservatives like him, it's a matter of election integrity.


ADAMS: To remove people who have died, to look at their citizenship lists to find out who's on the rolls that shouldn't be on the rolls - who could be against that?

JOHNSON: Under the National Voter Registration Act also known as the Motor Voter law, states are supposed to give notice before they remove someone from the list and then wait for two consecutive federal elections to see if a voter turns up. In most states, election officials wait and see whether they get returned mail suggesting voters have moved. But in Ohio, people are targeted for removal if they don't turn up and vote. Civil rights advocates like Vanita Gupta say that could have big implications.

VANITA GUPTA: This case will have a significant impact on what states believe they can do in order to purge voters off of the rolls. And it could have very significant implications on democratic participation for voters all over the country.

JOHNSON: Last year when Gupta ran the civil rights unit, the Obama Justice Department sided with people who sued Ohio over its purge. A federal appeals court agreed. But Late Monday, the Trump Justice Department switched positions and sided with Ohio. Justin Levitt is a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. He worked on the case last year in the Obama DOJ.

JUSTIN LEVITT: The Department of Justice switches policy every now and again, but this is different. This is what the statute means - the Department of Justice's best take on what the statute means. And the solicitor general is a very, very steady hand on most occasions.

JOHNSON: Not, he says, this one. Levitt points out that in another departure from usual practice, no career attorneys at Justice signed the court papers in the Ohio case, only political appointees. He says everyone agrees elections run more smoothly when the voter rolls are clean. But he says scrubbing those lists is like surgery.

LEVITT: If you do it right, if you do it carefully and with precision, it's really good. If you do it sloppily, it causes an awful lot of damage.

JOHNSON: The Justice Department says states have broad discretion in how they maintain their voter lists. John Husted, the Ohio secretary of state who's running for governor, says he welcomes support from the Justice Department. The Supreme Court will hear the dispute in its October term. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.