Joseph Helle was expecting a different sort of reception when he returned home from Army tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and showed up to vote in his small Ohio town near Lake Erie, the Associated Press reported Dec. 31.
His name was missing from the voting rolls in 2011, even though Helle had registered to vote before leaving home at 18 and hadn’t changed his address during his military service.
Helle, now the mayor of Oak Harbor, Ohio, is among thousands of state residents with tales of being removed from Ohio’s rolls because they didn’t vote in some elections. The Supreme Court is to hear arguments today in the disputed practice.
“I’m not one of these people that flaunts their military service, by any means, but to be told I couldn’t do one of the fundamental rights I went off and served this country for was just appalling,” said Helle, 31, recounting his reaction after being dropped from voter registration rolls.
Helle said he had no idea his name had been dropped and said he mailed in absentee ballots in some years and not others. His local elections board said it has no record that Helle voted while he was away. But even if he hadn’t voted, Helle said opting not to cast a ballot should be a voter’s choice and shouldn’t be penalized.
“That’s part of the free-speech argument to me,” he said. “Choosing not to vote is as important as choosing to vote. It’s one way to say, I do not believe in what’s going on here, or in either candidate, for instance.”
We encourage people to vote in every election, to be participants in our republic. But the right to vote is to be exercised at the discretion of the citizen. There is no language in the Constitution about losing the right to the franchise through non-participation, but there are four amendments which state that the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged.” Also, federal voting law specifically prohibits states from using voter inactivity to trigger purges.
It’s shocking and shameful that Ohio would disenfranchise a combat veteran for non-participation while he was serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But it’s not any less wrong to attempt to purge a civilian from the voter rolls for non-participation.
Maybe you forgot that there was an election last November or last April. Maybe you didn’t feel that any of the candidates were representing your interests. Maybe you were disgusted with the whole process and chose to not participate as a form of protest, as Helle characterized.
Your motivation for non-participation is none of the government’s business. Any government’s.
Again, we encourage everyone to vote in every election in which they are eligible. We don’t encourage the practice of non-participation. Decisions are made by those who show up.
But the right to vote is not “use it or lose it.” The decision to vote rests entirely in the hands of the law-abiding citizen, and no American governmental body should think itself empowered to take that decision away for non-participation.