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Battles rage over new voters

Legal disputes loom as the political parties spar over voter lists, new registrations.

By / October 7, 2008

Get-out-the-vote workers in Miami urged new US citizens to register after a Sept. 16 naturalization ceremony. The droves of new voters could be pivotal in a close election.

J. Pat carter/ap

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Record numbers of new voters – including 4 million in 12 key states – have registered this year, and election officials are preparing for high turnouts on Nov. 4.

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Questions remain, though, about whose votes will be counted. Less than a month before the presidential election, legal battles are brewing in multiple states over election laws, voter registration, and attempts to clean up state voter lists.

Democrats and voter-rights groups tend to cry foul over any effort that might disenfranchise legitimate voters, while Republicans challenge same-day registration and point to illegal behavior and potential fraud on the part of some voter-registration workers.

In a close election in which a battleground state can hinge on a few thousand votes, voter advocates are concerned that underhanded or even well-intentioned verification efforts may keep eligible voters from having their ballots counted, even as officials work hard to purge lists to make sure they contain legitimate voters.

“We’re now entering that phase of the election where all of the lawyering is going on,” says Michael McDonald, a political scientist at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., noting that the number of lawsuits around election law has jumped since Florida’s recount in 2000. “We’ve discovered that these things matter quite a bit, especially when we have close elections,” he says.

One high-profile concern this year involves a report that some states will use foreclosure lists to challenge voters’ registration status on Election Day – a tactic that could cause problems in states like Michigan and Ohio with large numbers of foreclosures. Republican officials in Michigan deny the report, but rumors have persisted, and the Obama campaign filed a lawsuit in September.

Other disputes have arisen, as well:

•In Florida, a new “no match, no vote” law invalidates voters’ registration if certain identification criteria – such as Social Security numbers or driver’s license numbers – don’t match with other state databases. Advocates say it ensures the identity of voters; critics say thousands of eligible voters may be disenfranchised due to typos and errors in data entry.

•In Ohio, the GOP challenged a new law that allows early voting within the voter-registration window, arguing that allowing someone to register and vote on the same day is counter to state law.

•In Montgomery County, Va., an official was questioned about statements that seemed to dissuade students from registering in Virginia, implying they might lose tax benefits or scholarship eligibility.

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