WASHINGTON—Saying it was out to combat widespread voter fraud, the Justice Department in recent years has stepped up enforcement of election laws to ease the purging of ineligible voters from state registration rolls.
Since 2005, department civil rights lawyers have sued election officials in seven states—Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Maine, Missouri, New Jersey and New York—and sent threatening letters to others, in some cases demanding copies of voter registration data.
Former lawyers in the Civil Rights Division, however, said the voter fraud campaign is a partisan effort to disqualify legitimate voters, as occurred in Florida before the 2000 presidential election.
The former department officials note that researchers have found no evidence of widespread voter fraud and that no lawsuits have targeted states whose elections were managed solely by Republican officials.
At the same time, the department has done little to enforce the core provisions of a 1993 law that requires public assistance agencies to help register the mostly Democratic-leaning, poor and minority voters they serve despite complaints from a national group, Project Vote.
The partisan nature of the Justice Department's election activity will be a focus of a congressional inquiry Tuesday. Former acting Justice Department civil rights chief, Bradley Schlozman, is due to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee to respond to allegations of partisanship in the division's hiring and enforcement policies.
Justice Department spokeswoman Cynthia Magnuson, however, rejected such suggestions. She said the division "vigorously enforces all of the statutes" under its purview "without regard to the political affiliation of the defendants."
"We routinely receive criticism from both sides of the political aisle for doing so," she said.
The ways in which the department's Civil Rights Division has enforced the 2002 Help America Vote Act and the 1993 National Voter Registration Act go to the heart of allegations that the Bush administration has used the unit to suppress the votes of poor minorities.
The Help America Vote Act required states to upgrade voting machines and to create central, computerized databases of registered voters by Jan. 1, 2006. The National Voter Registration Act became known as the "motor voter" law because it required motor-vehicle and public assistance agencies to register voters, but one provision directs states to scour registration records for ineligible names, such as those of dead people or voters who had moved away.
Joseph Rich, a former chief of the Justice Department's Voting Rights Section, said that Hans von Spakovsky, a former division counsel, directed him in early 2005 to start what Rich called "an initiative" to enforce the provision requiring states to maintain accurate registration lists.
Department spokeswoman Magnuson said "there was no initiative" and that the agency was merely enforcing the law.
Rich said the department changed priorities under the motor voter law "from expanding registration opportunities—the primary purpose of the statute—to unnecessarily forcing jurisdictions to remove voters from their voter rolls."
"Aggressive purging of the voter rolls tends to have a disproportionate impact on voters who move frequently, live in cities and have names that are more likely to be incorrectly entered into databases," said Rich, who's now an attorney with the liberal-leaning Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. Primarily, he said, this means poor, minority voters.
In late 2005, the department sued Missouri's Democratic secretary of state, Robin Carnahan, charging that her state had failed to eliminate ineligible voters from registration rolls. A federal judge threw out the suit this spring, noting that the registration lists were controlled by county registrars over whom Carnahan had little authority and the Justice Department had presented no evidence of fraud.
The remaining lawsuits were settled with the states pledging to abide by the law.
The suits accused Alabama Secretary of State Nancy Worley and Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, both Democrats, of failing to meet the deadline for setting up statewide databases of registered voters, which they blamed on technical complications.
In Worley's case, the department took the extraordinary step of persuading a federal judge nominated by President Bush to relieve her of her authority to oversee the 2006 election and to give Republican Gov. Bob Riley that authority as a "special master" of the court.
Worley called the suit "incredibly political," noting that it was filed shortly before she was due to face Democratic primary voters in a re-election bid and blaming it for her defeat.
Dunlap said the company that was hired to create the database in Maine ran into technical problems and couldn't complete the job. Nevada, he said, used the same vendor and also experienced problems, but the Justice Department didn't sue its Republican secretary of state, Dean Heller, who was running for Congress at the time.
Kathy Cox, who was Georgia's Democratic secretary of state last year, said the department sued her after she refused to turn over voter-registration data with Social Security numbers because state law protected that information. A fifth state Democratic chief election officer, New Jersey Attorney General Stuart Rabner, sought and obtained a court settlement with the department to avoid a legal fight, his chief spokesman said.
The department accused New York state of failing to upgrade its voting systems and to create a centralized voting list by the deadline and sued Indiana for failing to screen out ineligible voters.
Former Justice Department officials noted that other states—such as Texas, Colorado and Utah—had similar or worse voter-registration problems, but the department didn't sue their Republican election officials.
Robert Kengle, a former deputy voting-rights chief, said that given recent revelations about the Civil Rights Division, "you can't help but ask whether some type of partisan bias is at work in this pattern."
Some other states moved quickly to comply with the newly enforced laws.
Michigan's Republican secretary of state, Terri Lynn Land, not only set up the required database but also began a computer match of registration rolls with thousands of Social Security death records.
Alaina Beverly, a lawyer for the watchdog group Advancement Project, said the government computer match was fraught with errors. A public records request to the state showed that about 400 people who got notices that they were dead telephoned a hot line to say they weren't.
In May 2005, the Justice Department notified Kentucky's Republican secretary of state, Trey Grayson, that 33 counties in his state had more people registered to vote than there were eligible voters.
When Grayson ordered a purge of 8,105 people who'd moved to neighboring states about a month before Kentucky's primary election, Democratic Attorney General Greg Stumbo took him to court.
A state judge found that more than 200 eligible voters had been targeted for disqualification and there was no evidence that anyone had voted in two states.
The problem with the purges, said Wendy Weiser, director of the Democracy Campaign at New York University's Brennan Center for Justice, is that government lists are rife with typos and "so much of it is done secretly ... which opens the possibility for manipulation or error."