By Andrew Chung
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday revived Ohio's contentious policy of purging infrequent voters from registration rolls in a ruling powered by the five conservative justices and denounced by liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor as an endorsement of the disenfranchisement of minority and low-income people.
In the 5-4 decision in a closely watched voting rights case in which all four liberal justices dissented, the high court overturned a lower court's ruling that Ohio's policy violated the National Voter Registration Act, a 1993 federal law that forbade removing voters from registration lists for failing to vote.
Voters purged from registration rolls who sued to challenge the policy in the Republican-governed state argued that the practice illegally erased thousands of voters from registration rolls and disproportionately impacted racial minorities and poor people who tend to back Democratic candidates.
The state said the policy was needed to keep voting rolls current, clearing out people who have moved away or died.
Under Ohio's policy, if registered voters miss voting for two years, they are sent registration confirmation notices. If they do not respond and do not vote over the following four years, they are purged.
Republican President Donald Trump's administration backed Ohio, reversing the stance taken by Democratic former President Barack Obama's administration against the policy.
"This decision is validation of Ohio's efforts to clean up the voter rolls and now with the blessing (of the) nation's highest court, it can serve as a model for other states to use," Republican Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted said.
Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito said the court was not deciding whether Ohio's policy "is the ideal method for keeping its voting rolls up to date. The only question before us is whether it violates federal law. It does not."
Democrats have accused Republicans of taking steps at the state level, including laws requiring certain types of government-issued identification, intended to suppress the vote of minorities, poor people and others who generally favor Democratic candidates.
The challengers criticized what they called Ohio's "use it or lose it" policy that they said violated registered voters' right to choose when to vote, noting that some voters do not cast a ballot when they do not support any of the candidates running.
The 1993 federal law, known by its acronym NVRA, was enacted to make it easier to register. Many states over the decades had erected to voting, sometimes targeting black voters.
In a dissenting opinion, Sotomayor said the ruling "ignores the history of voter suppression against which the NVRA was enacted and upholds a program that appears to further the very disenfranchisement of minority and low-income voters that Congress set out to eradicate."
"Communities that are disproportionately affected by unnecessarily harsh registration laws should not tolerate efforts to marginalize their influence in the political process, nor should allies who recognize blatant unfairness stand idly by," added Sotomayor, the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice.
A 2016 Reuters analysis found roughly twice the rate of voter purging in Democratic-leaning neighborhoods in Ohio's three largest counties as in Republican-leaning neighborhoods.
The challengers, represented by liberal advocacy group Demos and the American Civil Liberties Union, sued Husted in 2016 to end the policy. One of the lead plaintiffs was software engineer and U.S. Navy veteran Larry Harmon, who was registered but blocked from voting in a 2015 marijuana-legalization initiative.
Demos attorney Stuart Naifeh criticized the ruling.
"If states take today's decision as a sign that they can be even more reckless and kick eligible voters off the rolls, we will fight back in the courts, the legislatures and with our community partners across the country," Naifeh said.
The Cincinnati-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2016 blocked Ohio's policy, prompting the state's appeal to the Supreme Court. Ohio's policy would have barred more than 7,500 voters from casting a ballot in the presidential 2016 election had the appeals court not ruled against the state, according to court papers.
Liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, in a dissent joined by the other liberal justices, said, "Using a registrant's failure to vote is not a reasonable method for identifying voters whose registrations are likely invalid." Since people tend not to send confirmation notices back to the government, it is not a reliable way to determine whether someone has moved away or not, Breyer added.
The challengers said there are six states that remove voters from their registration lists for failure to vote, but that Ohio is the most aggressive.
The decision marked the second time in three weeks that Trump's administration was on the winning side of a Supreme Court case after reversing an Obama-era position, following a May 21 ruling allowing companies to require workers to sign away their ability to bring class-action claims against management.
(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Additional reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)
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Updated Date: Jun 12, 2018 00:09 AM