Obama campaign sues Michigan GOP over alleged voter scheme

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 16, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama's presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee filed a lawsuit Tuesday accusing Michigan Republicans of a scheme to use mortgage foreclosure lists to challenge the voting eligibility of lower-income people who're likely to back Democrats in November.

Michigan Republicans denied the allegation. Chairman James Carabelli of the Macomb County Republican Party blamed the suit on a "reckless" report on the Michigan Messenger, a liberal-leaning Web site. Carabelli said that the report misquoted him and that he'd take legal action Wednesday to clear his name.

The federal suit, which Democratic lawyers acknowledged was based solely on unconfirmed news and Internet reports, also alleges that Ohio Republicans and the Republican National Committee have contemplated a similar "lose your home, lose your vote" tactic in that battleground state. William Todd, the chairman of the Ohio chapter of the Republican National Lawyers Association, denied that allegation, calling the idea of using foreclosure lists "silly."

Michigan law permits political parties to appoint election-day poll watchers who can challenge voters' credentials, and Democratic lawyers contended that Republicans have served notice that they "are acquiring foreclosure lists and intend to use them."

Plaintiffs in the suit include three Macomb County residents who're in foreclosure or who've faced it.

Democratic lawyers argued that foreclosure proceedings can take more than a year and don't always force a homeowner to change residences. Nor is there a basis, they wrote, "for challenging the right to vote of all the renters who reside in an apartment building that has been foreclosed."

They said the tactic is intended "to discourage, intimidate and suppress the vote of individuals whom defendant Republicans believe are unlikely to vote for them."

Bill Nowling, the chief spokesman for the Michigan Republican Party, said of the alleged foreclosure scheme: "We're not going to do that, and we never talked about doing it."

Carabelli demanded a retraction from the Michigan Messenger, saying his name had been "besmirched" by the Web site, affiliated with the nonprofit Center for Independent Media, which said it's standing by the story.

The suit comes amid an escalating ground war between Republicans and Democrats over voter-eligibility rules, absentee-ballot procedures and election-day procedures. Republicans are repeating a years-long outcry over alleged Democratic voter fraud, while Democrats accuse the GOP of an array of vote-suppression tactics.

The plan alleged in Tuesday's lawsuit is similar to alleged Republican attempts dating back decades to use returned mail sent to African-American neighborhoods as a basis for challenging the residency of likely Democratic voters. A DNC suit led to a 1982 federal court order barring the strategy — known as "vote caging" — if it focused on the race of potential voters. The court order has been revisited multiple times since.

The latest allegations offer a new twist, springing from the subprime mortgage debacle that's led to waves of mortgage defaults. Data from the Mortgage Bankers Association shows that, as of the second quarter of this year, 62,821 properties in Michigan and 71,030 properties in Ohio were in foreclosure. Nationwide, the number of homes lost could reach 2 million.

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