COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio voters who were wrongfully removed from the swing state’s registration lists can cast ballots in the Nov. 8 presidential election, a federal judge has ruled.
The number of voters in the perennial presidential battleground affected by Wednesday’s ruling is unclear, but some estimates are in the tens of thousands. The Ohio secretary of state’s office says that’s a high estimate.
The ruling impacts voters improperly purged from registration lists since 2011 and who still live in the same county where they had previously signed up to vote. Such voters can cast provisional ballots in the election, the court said.
Provisional ballots are used when a voter’s identity or registration is in question. The person’s eligibility is verified later.
The judge’s decision comes as early voting is underway in the state.
Ohio removed voters from its rolls who failed to vote in six years, update their registrations or respond to mailed notifications. The process had been in place for more than 20 years and carried out by Republican and Democratic elections chiefs, Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted has said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the New York-based public advocacy group Demos sued Husted in April, claiming the voter maintenance procedures illegally remove voters in violation of federal law. Last month, a federal appeals court agreed and ordered a lower court to decide a remedy.
In his ruling, U.S. District Judge George Smith noted the complications of the case.
Smith said the court had to craft an order “that restores the rights of as many disenfranchised voters as possible without placing an undue burden on election officials, fundamentally changing the State’s voting processes, or making room for abuse of those same processes.”
His order does not reinstate all voters removed from the voter registration rolls, but sets up procedures that allow them to vote provisionally and have their ballots counted. Elections officials also must post details online about what purged voters should do.
In the 2012 presidential election, about 20,000 provisional ballots were rejected because the person was not registered to vote. If that figure holds true for 2016, the secretary of state’s office anticipates that just a fraction of the provisional ballots would be from purged voters who still live within the same county.
Still, a few thousands votes could make a difference in a tight election and Ohio appears to be a toss-up in the presidential race. Yet Ohio may not play a decisive role come Election Day this year, given the strengths and weaknesses of Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump elsewhere.
Husted says his office will follow the judge’s ruling.
“We will fully comply with the judge’s order to count votes of people who remain eligible in their original county and continue to focus on the important work of administering a smooth election,” Husted said in a Wednesday night statement.
The ACLU’s Mike Brickner said the group would continue to push for the purged voters to be reinstated.
The court’s decision isn’t perfect, he said, but “it should lead to more people being franchised.”