Schedler C-Span

Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler is interviewed live on C-SPAN's Washington Journal from the C-SPAN Bus parked in front of the Louisiana Capitol on Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. 

The Secretary of State's Office canceled the registrations of 56,649 Louisiana voters last year.

That’s slightly less than 2 percent of all registered voters in the state and is in line with a 1990s federal requirement that elections officials keep their voter rolls tidy by removing the names of people who have moved or died or been imprisoned or otherwise disqualified.

How that two-decade-old voter purge procedure is being used now is at the root of one of the marquee cases being heard by the U.S. Supreme Court this term. A hearing is set for Jan. 10. A decision is expected by June.

The case of Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, et al., vs. the A. Philip Randolph Institute, et al., is the first time the high court will review the voter removal language in the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.

The nation’s Republican attorneys general say that unless the high court sorts out the confusing array of provisions in the federal law, Louisiana and at least 17 other states will find themselves in court defending how their particular state goes about the task of updating voter rolls. Nine jurisdictions already have been sued.

“These suits — and their conflicting allegations of voter fraud and voter removal — have taxed the states,” the GOP state legal executives said in their "friend of the court" brief, which Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry signed.

Kristen Clarke, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, on the other hand, told The American Prospect magazine that she fears if the Supreme Court sides with Ohio, “we will see states taking a copy-cat approach, and taking steps to gut the NVRA and gut the voter rolls across the country in other states.”

The Ohio case marks the most recent iteration of America’s age-old debate about who can vote.

Ever since 1776, when only landowning male Protestants could cast ballots, the right to vote has been a persistent argument. Election integrity has come under recent scrutiny with President Donald Trump claiming that millions of votes were cast illegally in the 2016 presidential election. He named a national commission to investigate voter fraud. A majority of state election officials responded that fraud is not widespread.

On Thursday, Roy Moore, the failed Republican U.S. Senate candidate, unsuccessfully claimed that thousands of voters registered in other states had helped Democratic candidate Doug Jones win in Alabama.

While the nation’s highest court wrestles with how voters are removed from voter registration rolls, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans in another case is expected to decide a challenge to one of the nation’s tightest voter ID laws, which requires Texas voters to produce one of seven types of photo identification cards before they can cast a ballot.

In the Supreme Court case, Ohio argues that four conflicting provisions guide how elections officials maintain voting lists. One says that a person’s name can’t be removed for failing to vote, but another says that a person who fails to respond to an address-confirmation notice and fails to vote can be removed.

Ohio’s “supplemental process” targets voters who skip two consecutive federal elections. They are sent notices asking them to confirm their addresses. If the secretary of state doesn’t hear back and the person doesn’t vote for a subsequent four years, they are removed from voter rolls.

The A. Philip Randolph Institute, an association of African-American labor organizations, argues that Ohio’s procedure violates the law by putting failure to vote front and center when determining which voters are sent address confirmations.

Federal law specifically excludes “voter inactivity” as a criterion because there are a myriad of reasons for not casting a ballot, including work, long lines, the cost of obtaining voter identification and dissatisfaction with politics.

Removing voters merely for not voting “tends to disproportionately affect persons of low incomes, blacks and other minorities,” according to a "friend of the court" brief that included civil rights icon U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Atlanta, as a signatory.

Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. Department of Justice argued that Ohio’s trigger “inevitably results in the removal of voters based on nonvoting, which violates the NVRA” and other federal prohibitions.

But the Justice Department switched sides under President Trump and now contends Ohio is protecting the integrity of elections by keeping the voting rolls more accurate.

Louisiana’s long history of setting impossible tests aimed at denying African Americans and poor whites the ability to register to vote meant that for much of the past half century, the Justice Department had to vet and approve just about anything involving elections in this state. And these procedures were no different, said Secretary of State Tom Schedler.

Louisiana’s procedures differ from Ohio’s in the key aspect of where not voting falls in the process.

Essentially, Louisiana routinely compares voter rolls with various databases, such as death and incarceration records. Several cards are mailed to voters suspected of having moved. If the cards bounce back, state elections officials start looking closer. That’s when the voter’s name is checked against the list of those who haven’t voted in the past two federal elections, Schedler said.

The voter who still hasn’t answered state queries goes on an inactive list but can still vote. Showing up for an election removes the voter from the inactive list.

For those who continue not to vote, further correspondence is sent. If the voter is officially purged, he or she would have to re-register, though not on an election day, to regain the ability to cast a ballot, Schedler said. “But by that point, you’ve received a lot of mail and communications,” he added. 

The state’s 2016 inactive list had 117,036 names, from which 56,649 voter registrations were canceled on Dec. 31, 2016, according to the latest available Secretary of State’s Office records.

Those removed included 33,072 whites, 1.7 percent of those registered; 19,355 blacks, or 2 percent of those registered; 1.6 percent of Democrats; 1.4 percent of Republicans; and 2.7 percent of those without party affiliation.

Urban centers had cancellation percentages higher than the 1.9 percent statewide average, with 2.6 percent of East Baton Rouge Parish voters losing their registration in 2016, 2.1 percent in Orleans Parish, 2 percent in Lafayette and 2.7 percent in Caddo Parish. The suburban parishes were mostly lower, with 1.3 percent in Jefferson and Livingston parishes, 1.8 percent in Ascension and 2.3 percent in St. Tammany.

The Louisiana Democratic Party says the state’s procedures differ from those in Ohio but still are unsatisfactory, said Stephen Handwerk, the party’s executive director.

“The purging process here focuses on people who have changed addresses. Low-income families and individuals move more often than people with steady incomes or who own property. Therefore, the purges disproportionately affect low-income people,” Handwerk said. “That, along with the fact that there is an extremely limited number of polling places, especially during early voting, and a short period of time to cast a ballot, restricts access to the ballot for too many eligible voters.”

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.