Where the GOP could get dirty

From Ohio to Florida to Montana, here's where Republicans may be using voter suppression tactics to tilt the presidential election.

Published October 22, 2008 10:54AM (EDT)

With the end of another hotly contested presidential race now in sight, both political parties are once again mobilizing legions of lawyers. In every swing state -- and even in a number of not-so-swing states -- there are already public-relations and legal battles in motion that could help determine whether thousands of ballots will be counted. It's been another campaign in which the Republican Party has whipped up a media frenzy over the mostly nonexistent problem of voter fraud -- a much-hyped concern that, in reality, could abet a far more serious threat: Republican dirty tricks aimed at suppressing voter turnout in heavily Democratic areas.

Voter suppression can be difficult to prove. Suppression tactics -- anything from purging voter rolls under suspicious circumstances to using various justifications to question the eligibility of potential voters -- are often the product of legal gray areas being exploited at the hands of local partisan officials. To date, no one has presented evidence of any nationally organized effort by the Republican Party to suppress Democratic votes. But there is little doubt that at local and regional levels -- in some potentially critical states on the electoral map -- there has been dubious activity that could result in the disenfranchisement of voters who would likely punch the ballot for Barack Obama.

The following guide collects recent reports of alleged suppression tactics across a dozen states, from Ohio to Virginia to Montana. If the Nov. 4 vote turns out to be another squeaker, the hottest spots to watch in the battle over the ballot box will likely be in some of these places.

Number of Electoral College votes: 20
Status in current polls: Tossup
Suppression hot spots: Greene County; Columbus; Cleveland

On Oct. 17, a Republican fundraiser from Columbus filed suit against Ohio's Democratic secretary of state, Jennifer Brunner, in an attempt to force Brunner to verify the almost 700,000 voters who registered this year. The case quickly made its way to the Supreme Court where, in a unanimous decision, the court ruled that there were no legal grounds forcing newly registered voters to undergo a more stringent verification process.

Brunner had already come under fire in a Sept. 18 Op-Ed in the Akron Beacon Journal in which GOP leaders attacked her for refusing to register voters who had applied for absentee ballots using a confusing form sent out by the McCain campaign -- a decision they argued made Brunner guilty of suppression herself.

According to a report in the Dayton Daily News, Republican Gene Fischer, the sheriff of Greene County, provoked an uproar by attempting to figure out which students at a local black university planned to register and vote on Election Day. Fischer's legal representative during his ill-fated “investigation” was the county prosecutor -- also a former law partner of the chairman of John McCain’s Ohio campaign.

Number of Electoral College votes: 27
Status in current polls: Tossup
Suppression hot spots: Hillsborough County; Miami-Dade County
According to an Oct. 8 article in the St. Petersburg Times, the voting status of 8,867 Floridians -- flagged by a new voting law requiring voters' names to match the ID numbers or Social Security numbers given in their registration forms -- was still up in the air. The effect of the new law, which passed three years ago but only took effect on Sept. 8, appears to be the disenfranchisement of Latin-American and African-American voters who comprise more than 50 percent of those whose voting status is being questioned. Voting rights activists say this is because Latinos and African-Americans have more unusual names and are therefore more at risk of being purged this way, due to typos. Reportedly there have been 3,247 more Democrats purged than Republicans.

In mid-September, Sasha Rethati of Southwest Florida’s public radio station WGCU accused the McCain campaign of voter caging -- the practice of using returned mailers to challenge the residency status of people who failed to collect their mail -- after it sent out mailers to Florida Democrats and independents. The McCain camp roundly denied caging, which would affect both those wealthy enough to live elsewhere during the summer and those economically disadvantaged voters who move their place of residence more often.

Number of Electoral College votes: 11
Status in current polls: Leaning red, but may be a tossup
Suppression hot spots: Lake County; northern Indiana

Indiana has a highly controversial voter ID law that makes it harder for poor voters to cast their ballots. The law was passed in April and was advocated for by Republican Secretary of State Todd Rokita, who voiced more concern about voter impersonation -- a crime that has never been reported in Indiana -- than about the fact that Indiana came in dead last for voter turnout in the 2004 presidential election.

Republican members of Indiana’s Election Board also reportedly attempted to block the opening of satellite election centers in northern Indiana’s Lake County. The centers, which make voting more accessible for those living in Gary, Hammond and East Chicago -- some of the more racially diverse towns in Indiana with significant African-American populations -- would have remained closed but for the Indiana Supreme Court’s Oct. 14 ruling mandating that they be opened.

Number of Electoral College votes: 21
Status in current polls: Blue

Suppression hot spots: Philadelphia
Like many other states, Pennsylvania has been targeted by the GOP in the battle over ACORN registrations. After publicizing suspicions of the 140,000 new voters registered by the grass-roots advocacy group, the state GOP filed a suit on Oct. 17 demanding that the state review its registration systems and air public service announcements about voting requirements -- quite possibly intimidating first-time voters. In targeting ACORN, Republicans have conflated the issue of faulty voter registration forms with problems at the ballot box, which are protected by more stringent verification safeguards. As Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell's press spokesperson pointed out, "Just because Mickey Mouse fills out a registration form doesn't mean he gets to vote.''

Philadelphia city officials were also concerned about a flier tacked up on campuses and in minority neighborhoods that said law enforcement officials would be using the election to arrest people with outstanding warrants and parking tickets.

Number of Electoral College votes: 10
Status in current polls: Blue
Suppression hot spots: Statewide

On Sept. 10, the Wisconsin Attorney General, J.B. Van Hollen -- a McCain campaign state co-chair -- sued the state’s Government Accountability Board, demanding more stringent voter verifications. Members of the state's board and a Madison city clerk reportedly said that would likely disenfranchise many voters by causing long lines and confusion on Election Day. The case is ongoing.

The same week Van Hollen brought suit, the McCain campaign sent out a mailer to hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin voters that included a state application for an absentee ballot stamped with the address of a local clerk. Many of the clerks' addresses  did not correspond with the places the mailers were sent, according to a Sept. 12 article in the Wisconsin State Journal. The mailers encouraged voters to apply for absentee ballots in places where they were not eligible. The McCain campaign said it was a mistake.



Number of Electoral College votes: 17
Status in current polls: Blue
Suppression hot spots: Macomb County; Detroit

In early September, James Carabelli, the chairman of the Macomb County Republican Party, allegedly told the Michigan Messenger that he would use a list of foreclosed homes to challenge the eligibility of voters. Carabelli later denied that he'd ever said anything of the sort, and filed a defamation suit against the paper.

Republican denials of wrongdoing in Macomb County continued even as a federal judge ordered the Republican secretary of state to restore the 1,438 new voters who had been purged from the voter roles after their voter cards had been returned labeled “undeliverable.” The Oct. 14 ruling put a stop to the illegal purging of voter lists within 90 days of the presidential election.

Number of Electoral College votes: 13
Status in current polls: Leaning blue
Suppression hot spots: Radford County; potentially statewide

The Roanoke Times reported that Tracy Howard, the Radford County registrar, was "paying special attention" to the voting status of college students, and that she posted a confusing questionnaire, actions that prompted a strong response from voters' rights groups. Those groups say that college students are being unfairly targeted, and that it could suppress turnout.

Meanwhile, a recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice highlighted Virginia’s stunning lack of preparedness for a major election. In a state that saw its voter turnout rise 266 percent from the 2004 election to the 2008 primaries, no law mandates that election workers be trained or that the state conduct a post-election audit.

Number of Electoral College votes: 9
Status in current polls: Leaning blue
Suppression hot spots: El Paso County; Denver; Boulder

An Oct. 9 New York Times article on voter purging singled out Colorado for illegally purging voters within 90 days of an election, during which time only voters who move out of state, die or are declared mentally unfit to vote can be removed from voting rolls. Of the 7,000 voters purged, 630 more Democrats were purged than Republicans and only 20 percent were purged due to death or relocation. Either a significant number of Coloradans suddenly went nuts or something went awry in the purging process.

In early October, confusion over Colorado’s voter registration form resulted in the rejection of some 4,800 new voter applications when applicants wrote in their Social Security numbers without checking a box saying that they would be using those Social Security numbers -- rather than their driver's license numbers -- to prove their citizenship. According to the Colorado Independent, all of these rejected voters live in the Democratic strongholds of Denver and Boulder.

Two weeks earlier, according to the Rocky Mountain News, the president of Colorado College received a memo stating falsely that out-of-state students who still claimed dependent status on their tax forms would be ineligible to vote.

Number of Electoral College votes: 5
Status in Current polls: Tossup
Suppression hot spots: Clark County

Republicans used the Oct. 7 raid of ACORN’s Las Vegas headquarters by law enforcement officials to fuel a furor about voter fraud, with local GOP officials calling into question the state's large number of new voter registrations (largely Democratic). Since the raid, which was conducted by the state’s "Election Integrity Task Force" and Nevada's Secretary of State Ross Miller, a Democrat who has also sought to quell suppression concerns within his own party, the Nevada Republican Party’s chairwoman has asked Miller to bar 2,300 voters she says filled out their registrations incorrectly. The fear of being rejected by election workers may scare new voters and voters registered by ACORN away from the polls.

Number of Electoral College votes: 15
Status in current polls: Tossup
Suppression hot spots: Guilford County

RNC lawyers have alleged that ACORN has committed “rampant” voter registration fraud in North Carolina even though only .5 percent of the forms submitted were invalid. This accusation, as in Nevada, may have the effect of diminishing turnout among those legitimately registered by ACORN. It is also impossible to "straight ticket" vote on the presidential race, which may confuse newer voters.

Number of Electoral College votes: 3
Status in current polls: Tossup
Suppression hot spots: Missoula County; Indian reservations statewide

On Oct. 2, the Montana Republican Party challenged the registration of 6,000 voters -- mostly college students and Native Americans. On Oct. 9 a federal judge denied an injunction Montana Democrats had sought to stop Republicans from challenging any other voter registrations, but also instructed election officials to ignore the initial registration challenges by the GOP. The judge said the Montana Republican Party had challenged the voters with "the express intent to disenfranchise voters."

Number of Electoral College votes: 15
Status in current polls: Red
Suppression hot spots: Statewide

When it comes to double-checking voter registrations, Georgia may take the prize. On Oct. 7, Republican Michael Astrue, the Social Security commissioner, announced that Georgia’s Department of Driver’s Services had sent the Social Security Administration 2 million requests for voter ID verification -- almost twice as many verification requests as any other state and over a quarter of the national total. Astrue’s announcement prompted the Department of Justice to warn Georgia officials that the flood of ID verifications amounted to a change in state policy unenforceable under the Help America Vote Act, which put the Department of Driver’s Services in charge of checking voter registrations in the first place. Republican Secretary of State Karen Handel, Georgia’s chief election officer, disputed the DOJ’s claim.

Georgia also has a controversial voter ID law that a U.S. District Court Judge compared to the poll taxes of the Jim Crow era.

By Andrew Burmon

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