The Justice Department has reversed itself in a high-profile voting case in Ohio to side with the state and allow the purging of voters from the rolls for not answering election mail and not voting in recent elections.
In a court filing Monday, Justice attorneys took the opposite position from the Obama administration in a case that involved the state's removal of thousands of inactive voters from the Ohio voting rolls.
Civil rights groups last year challenged Ohio's process, arguing that such purges are prohibited under the National Voter Registration Act. The Justice Department under Obama filed an amicus brief siding with the groups, and the Supreme Court is set to hear the case in the next term.
But in an unusual turn, the department filed a new amicus brief Monday arguing that the purges of voters are legal under federal law. This brief, unlike the prior one, was not signed by career attorneys in the civil rights division.
The Ohio procedure allows the state to purge voters meeting certain criteria for being inactive. If a voter has not cast a ballot in two years, the person is sent a notice asking to confirm registration. If the voter does not respond and does not cast a ballot over the next four years, the person if removed from the rolls.
The Justice Department's brief on Monday argued that Ohio is not removing voters only for their initial failure to vote.
"Registrants are sent a notice because of that initial failure, but they are not removed unless they fail to respond and fail to vote for the additional period," the brief said.
Such a reversal from the Justice Department is "quite rare," said Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School who was deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's civil rights division during the Obama administration.
Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law called the Ohio purges "a critical voting rights case" and said the department's reversal is "the latest example of an agency whose leadership has lost its moral compass."
"The law hasn't changed since the department accurately told the court that Ohio's voter purge was unlawful," Clarke said in statement. "The facts haven't changed. Only the leadership of the department has changed. The Justice Department's latest action opens the door for wide-scale unlawful purging of the voter registration rolls across our country."
A Justice Department spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.
Ohio's purging process has been defended by Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican who is running for governor. He said that the method of removing inactive voters has been used by both Republicans and Democrats to clear the rolls of people who have moved away or died.
"Maintaining the integrity of the voter rolls is essential to conducting an election with efficiency and integrity," Husted said in a statement in May when the Supreme Court said it would hear the case.
"I remain confident that once the justices review this case they will rule to uphold the decades-old process that both Republicans and Democrats have used in Ohio to maintain our voter rolls as consistent with federal law," Husted said.