Voter-rights advocates hope that this year they've won

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 31, 2008 

WASHINGTON — Hailing legal victories in Colorado and Michigan, election watchdog groups say that they think they've thwarted efforts to prevent tens of thousands of students and poor minorities from voting on Tuesday.

"It really does look as if most of the efforts to knock people off the rolls will not come to fruition," said Michael Waldman, the executive director of New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. "At this point, voters who are eligible will be able to vote."

With lingering allegations of fraud and manipulation clouding President Bush's election victories in 2000 and 2004, that might reassure Americans who are dreading another disputed election. It comes after a month of court and public relations battles over Republican allegations of voter fraud and Democratic charges of unlawful schemes to disenfranchise voters.

Even so, in the campaign's final days, political operatives have been spreading misinformation to frighten or confuse voters. In Virginia, a swing state for the first time in decades, a bogus flier carrying the Virginia Election Board's Internet logo advised Republicans to vote on Tuesday and Democrats to vote on Wednesday — which is after the polls close. A flier floating around Drexel University in Philadelphia falsely warned students with unpaid parking tickets that they'd be arrested if they tried to vote.

Civil rights groups and even a mobile phone company have created new Web sites to help voters find their polling places and fend off challenges by taking the required identification.

John McCain and the Republican National Committee have sought to frame concerns about the election's integrity around investigations into allegations that the liberal Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now has fraudulently registered thousands of voters, but no evidence has surfaced of a scheme to steal the election.

Watchdog groups worry that Republican challenges to the eligibility of ACORN-registered voters and other new registrants will lengthen waiting times, especially in precincts already likely to be bottlenecked for lack of voting machines, and may send some people home or to work without voting.

Democrats charge that the ACORN allegations are a smokescreen for Republican attempts to suppress voting by people who are likely to favor Democrats.

Nowhere has the action over those allegations been more intense than in Ohio, which decided the 2004 election.

In 2006, Ohio's Republican-controlled legislature passed a law requiring counties to mail notices that can't be forwarded to all voters, a law that critics charged would assist the Republican Party in challenging the residency of voters whose notices were returned because they were out of town.

When 600,000 notices came back undelivered, Democratic Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner provided those names to the political parties, but she issued a directive barring challenges to voters' eligibility based solely on returned postcards.

Some of this year's problems can be traced to Congress' reaction to the 2000 election battle, which revolved around "hanging chads," holes that weren't fully punched next to Bush's or rival Al Gore's names.

In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which required states to buy new voting equipment and to keep centralized databases of registered voters, but some experts say the law's unintended consequences have made things worse.

Computer scientists have found that nearly every voting machine now in use has security or reliability flaws, or both. Complaints in recent days from early voters in West Virginia that an iVotronic model made by Election Software & Systems "flipped" votes from Democrat Barack Obama to McCain have fueled voters' distrust. The Brennan Center sent letters advising 16 other states that use the iVotronic to "recalibrate" the machines periodically.

The 2002 voting act's requirement that states' chief election officers keep central databases of registered voters has spawned legal battles from coast to coast. The law required states to routinely purge ineligible voters' names from the lists and to match new registration data with error-riddled driver's license and federal Social Security databases.

The act doesn't disqualify voters whose data don't precisely match, but some states have purged thousands of names from the rolls on a no-match, no-vote basis.

"For people who are trying to use the levers of election administration to restrict the electorate," the availability of a statewide database makes wholesale purges easier, said Jonah Goldman, the director of the National Campaign for Fair Elections for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Colorado Secretary of State Mike Coffman, a Republican, dropped as many as 30,000 voters from the rolls within 90 days of the election. After watchdog groups and the Service Employees International Union sued, the state agreed to a court settlement this week. It ensures affected registrants that if they're relegated to filing provisional ballots, county and state officials will examine their eligibility, as well as watchdog groups.

A federal appeals court upheld a ruling protecting the rights of 5,500 Michigan voters whose names were similarly purged, and a Wisconsin judge rejected a move by Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen to remove thousands of voters' names from the rolls.

A federal appeals court upheld the decision of Florida's Republican secretary of state, Kurt Browning, to lop 9,000 names from the rolls, finding that states can set tougher standards than those in the federal law. However, more than 30 Florida counties, including Miami-Dade and Palm Beach, have agreed to let those registrants vote if they can bring documentation proving they're legitimate.

Brunner, Ohio's Democratic secretary of state, declined to purge the names of 200,000 newly registered voters who were rejected in a computer match. Republicans went to court in an attempt to force her to share them with county registrars, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the party had no right to sue.

Wendy Weiser, the deputy director of the Brennan Center's Democracy Campaign, cautioned that while watchdog groups have blunted numerous attempted purges, some may not be recognized until voters show up at the polls and find their names absent from registration lists.

"Purges typically happen behind closed doors and without notice to affected voters," she said.

WHAT YOU CAN TO DO PROTECT YOUR VOTE:

To find your polling place, go to www.GoVote.org , type in your ZIP code and receive a Google map of your voting location and a list of local voter-identification requirements

If you have been subject to intimidation or witnessed voting irregularities, you may report the incident to your nearest U.S. attorney's office or call 866-OUR-VOTE, an election-protection hot line run by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

If you have evidence of voter fraud, phone your local U.S. attorney’s offices, the local FBI offices or the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section at 202-514-1412.

To look for local or regional patterns in voting irregularities, go to www.OurVoteLive.org.

Sources: Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; Credo Mobile, creator of GoVote.org.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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