Battles rage over new voters

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

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    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.
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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.

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.

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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.

To some extent, such challenges and disputes are now a standard part of elections. But concerns have escalated this year because of high numbers of first-time registrants, expectations for high turnout, and tight races in numerous states.

Moreover, the Help America Vote Act, passed in part to address concerns after the 2000 Florida debacle, requires states to have statewide voter databases, which some are only now getting in place.

“At the same time the system is under stress, it’s also changing quite a bit,” says Doug Chapin of electionline.org, a project of the Pew Center on the States. On Election Day, Mr. Chapin says, he’ll be watching Florida, Ohio, and Colorado, swing states where disputes are already brewing. In Florida, many counties have new voting equipment along with the “no match, no vote” law, and in Ohio, concerns abound about absentee balloting, long lines, and techniques being used to get voters off the rolls. Colorado, among the last to get its database working, had problems in 2006 with its database and with new voting centers open to voters from any precinct.

As voter advocacy groups worry about disenfranchisement, many Republicans cite voter-fraud concerns, pointing to several convictions this year of registration workers submitting phony forms. The reality, says Chapin, is that little data support the notion that voter fraud occurs, just as little data support the notion that widespread disenfranchisement exists. “Each side has its tenets of faith and [they] end up talking past each other,” he says.

One challenge for states is how to keep voter-registration rolls up-to-date without inadvertently purging legitimate voters from the lists.

“You have to have proper checks and balances,” says Pedro Cortes, secretary of state in Pennsylvania and president of the National Association of Secretaries of State. “You want to make sure voter registration records aren’t clogged with voters who are no longer there, but at the same time we need to recognize the preeminent right to vote.”

Secretary Cortes says he tends to err on the side of leaving an inactive voter who is potentially no longer on the rolls, rather than purge a legitimate voter, but vote watchers say many states purge the rolls using little care.

A new study from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law found multiple problems with how purges are done. It cited reliance on error-ridden lists, secret purges, lack of voter notification, and use of bad “matching criteria” to mistakenly eliminate voters who have similar identifying data but are in fact two different people.

“There’s no uniformity, no standards, for how these purges can be done,” says Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center.

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