WASHINGTON — Ohio and Florida, which provided the decisive electoral votes for President Bush's two razor-thin national election triumphs, have enacted laws that election experts say will help Republicans impede Democratic-leaning minorities from voting in 2008.
Backers of the new laws say they're aimed at curbing vote fraud. But the statutes also could facilitate a controversial Republican tactic known as ``vote caging,'' which the GOP attempted in Ohio and Florida in 2004 before public disclosures foiled the efforts, said Joseph Rich, a former Justice Department voting rights chief in the Bush administration who's now with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.
Caging, used in the past to target poor minorities in heavily Democratic precincts, entails sending mass mailings to certain voters and then using the undelivered letters to compile lists of voters for eligibility challenges.
As the high-stakes ground war escalates heading into next year's elections, Republicans have led the charge for an array of revisions to state voting rights laws, especially in key battleground states. Republican political appointees in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division have endorsed some of these measures.
Over the last three years, the Republican-controlled state legislatures in Indiana, Georgia, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have passed laws requiring every voter to produce a photo identification card — measures that civil rights groups contend were aimed at suppressing minority voting.
The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to consider a constitutional challenge to Indiana's ID law on grounds that it unfairly affects poor and elderly voters. Gubernatorial vetoes or court rulings have nullified legislation in the other four states. A federal judge in Georgia, however, recently upheld a new photo ID law that imposes fewer obstacles to obtaining one.
In Ohio, which swung the 2004 election to Bush, new Democratic Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner said in a phone interview that an election law passed last year and signed by former Republican Gov. Bob Taft effectively ``institutionalized'' vote caging.
The law requires that the state's 88 county election boards send non-forwardable, pre-election notices to all 7.8 million registered Ohio voters at least 60 days before the election. Undelivered letters are public record, she said, meaning that effectively, ``now the counties are paying for'' the data needed to compile challenge lists.
In addition, Brunner said, the law toughened voter ID requirements and ``took away rights of some voters to be heard about whether or not their registration was valid.''
In the past, Ohio voters were entitled to an official notice and a hearing before an election board could declare them ineligible, but the new law says that the board can make that decision without notice. A disqualified voter who shows up at the polls must demonstrate that he's fixed any eligibility problem or opt for filing a provisional ballot that may not count.
Brunner said the new law has left her feeling ``like being in a sword fight with one hand behind your back.'' She said she's sought, ``while working within the framework of preventing fraud,'' to make it ``as easy as possible for people who are eligible to participate.''
``We feel the eyes of the nation are on us, no matter what we do,'' Brunner said.
A 2005 Florida law, approved by the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act, stripped the state's 10.5 million registered voters of the right to contest challenges at the polls. Now a challenger need only swear to a "good faith belief" that a voter is ineligible to force the voter to file a provisional ballot.
At the same time, the law reduces from three days to 48 hours the deadline for challenged voters to produce evidence that they're eligible to vote in their precincts.
Another Florida law imposed a $250 penalty on voter registration workers for every registration application they fail to turn over to county registrars within 10 days. After the League of Women Voters sued and a judge blocked its implementation, the legislature cut the fine to $50 per infraction.
Sterling Ivey, a spokesman for Florida Republican Secretary of State Kurt Browning, said there has been no sign of a large caging operation.
"We don't see a significant number of challenges of voters in Florida,'' he said.
But former voting rights chief Rich said Ohio's and Florida's new laws ``make one wonder whether there will be new efforts to have massive challenges in the future.''
A federal court injunction has barred the Republican National Committee for 25 years from engaging in racially targeted vote caging, but it doesn't extend to state parties.
Asked whether they might employ vote caging in 2008, Executive Director Jason Mauk of the Ohio Republican Party and spokeswoman Erin VanSickle of the Florida Republican Party said they couldn't discuss election strategy.
Chandler Davidson, a Rice University sociology professor who has studied voter suppression, said the new laws are questionable because ``there has been virtually no evidence presented that there has been wide-scale voter fraud in the United States.''
Pointing to a Yale University study showing that mail is less likely to reach residents of low-income neighborhoods, he said mass mailings of non-forwardable mail will ``discriminate in a pretty straightforward way'' against poor people and minorities.
A study to be released Thursday by the liberal-leaning group Project Vote noted that Minnesota — with bipartisan support — altered its election law in 2005.
The law prohibits political parties from bringing in challengers from out of state and from using non-forwardable mail to compile challenge lists.
``The fundamental question,'' said Democratic Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, ``is do you want to make sure everyone can vote, or do you want to make sure some people can vote and other people have a harder time voting?''
McClatchy Newspapers 2007