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Justice Dept. backs Ohio's effort to purge infrequent voters from rolls

By Charlie Savage

WASHINGTON – The Justice Department has thrown its weight behind Ohio in a high-profile legal fight over the state’s purging of infrequent voters from its election rolls, reversing the federal government’s position under the Obama administration that the practice was unlawful.

The move was the latest in a series of changes the department has made in how it enforces civil rights law under the Trump administration. The dispute centers on an aggressive practice used in Ohio, a crucial swing state in presidential elections, that removes voters who sit out three election cycles and fail to respond to a warning.

Last year, when the state sought to delete several hundred thousand registrations of infrequent voters ahead of the presidential election, civil-liberties groups filed a lawsuit against Ohio’s secretary of state, Jon Husted. After the Obama-era Justice Department filed a friend-of-the-court brief calling the purging practices unlawful, a federal appeals court ordered Ohio to let those people vote.

But, seeking to resume the practice in future elections, Ohio appealed to the Supreme Court. And late Monday, the Trump administration filed a brief arguing that the justices should reverse the appeals court and find that Ohio is within its rights to prune its voter rolls.

Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, who was a deputy in the Justice Department’s civil rights division under the Obama administration and worked on the Ohio case, said he disagreed with the new interpretation, while stressing that it was particularly extraordinary for “the solicitor general’s office to switch its own position on what the statute means” in the middle of the case.

“This is not merely a policy change,” he said. “It is a change by the office that has the role in the courts of deciding what the law says on behalf of the federal government.”

Lauren Ehrsam, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said the new position “was supported by the National Voter Registration Act’s text, context and history,” and she stressed that a ruling allowing Ohio’s practice would not force other states to do likewise.

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