Federal judges on Wednesday ordered Ohio to allow voters who had been purged for not voting over a six-year period to participate in this year's election.
A divided 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel granted an emergency motion sought by voting-rights groups. The ruling overturned in part an Oct. 10 ruling by a federal judge that said voters haven't been illegally purged from Ohio's rolls.
Plaintiffs led by the A. Philip Randolph Institute in June lost their broader challenge to Ohio's election administration process as unconstitutional when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Ohio's practices.
But they continued to challenge the confirmation notices the state sent to voters that set off the process of removing them from county voter rolls after not voting in three federal elections or taking other voting-related actions. They said the letters were too vague on letting recipients know the consequences of not responding.
"Plaintiffs have a reasonable, and perhaps even greater, likelihood of success on the merits of their claim that defendant's confirmation notice did not adequately advise registrants of the consequences of failure to respond, as the NVRA (National Voting Rights Act) requires," the court ruled Wednesday.
Judges Julia Smith Gibbons and Eric Clay formed the majority. Judge Eugene Siler Jr. disagreed, saying the plaintiff claims were "all speculation."
Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted said he wouldn't fight the order, to avoid "an unnecessary source of contention with election only five days away." Ohio's procedures will eventually be upheld again, he said, and the state is committed to making it "easy to vote and hard to cheat."
Husted is running for lieutenant governor on a ticket with Attorney General Mike DeWine, who is in a tight race for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Richard Cordray.
The voting-rights groups said that some elections in Ohio, traditionally a swing state, have been settled by small margins, and that turning away potentially thousands of voters could alter outcomes.
"The court's decision will allow more Ohio voters to have their voices heard next Tuesday," attorney Stuart Naifeh of the Demos organization said via email. "Every vote counts, including those cast by voters who may not have been engaged in the political process in recent years. ... In today's ruling, the court recognized that the right to vote is too important to allow states to take it away without giving voters meaningful notice."
Partisan fights over ballot access have been playing out around the country. Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to suppress votes from minorities and poorer people who tend to vote for Democrats. Republicans have argued that they are trying to promote ballot integrity and prevent voter fraud.
The 6th Circuit panel found there wasn't an emergency need to block "purges," and that it could consider that part of the appeal later.
Husted said after the Supreme Court ruling in June that no more voters would be removed before the Nov. 6 election.