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Vote Suppression Stalls, Challenges Remain

After weeks of some of the most intense voter battles in recent memory, attempts to block the vote have failed again and again…

  • Maggie Barron
October 30, 2008
After weeks of some of the most intense voter battles in recent memory, attempts to block the vote have failed again and again. Recent court decisions and public outcry have deflated these efforts in Montana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Colorado, Georgia, and other key states.     

In Colorado last night, voting rights groups and the Secretary of State reached an agreement to ensure that wrongfully purged voters will have their ballots counted on Election Day. The Secretary of State had removed approximately 30,000 voter registrations during the federally mandated 90 day “no purge” period before November 4th. Under the new agreement, these wrongfully purged Colorado voters will be placed on a special protection list to help election officials verify their eligibility. 

In Georgia, a three-judge court ruled that the state must allow voters with “flagged” registrations to vote. Georgia’s new voter-verification system had flagged over 50,000 people because of computer mismatches. 4500 of them were flagged as suspected non-citizens, often erroneously, and were expected to prove their citizenship in order to vote.   

In Wisconsin, a judge dismissed all claims in a case that could have put between 53,000 and 200,000 Wisconsin voters at risk of being disenfranchised because of typos or other errors in state databases. The court rightly concluded that nothing in the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) requires states to condition a voter’s eligibility on a successful database match.

In Montana, the State GOP backed off its challenge of 6,000 registered voters who had filed change-of-address forms (including students and service members in Iraq who needed their mail forwarded). Public outrage, including an op-ed from the Lieutenant Governor, convinced the GOP to drop the challenges, and in a subsequent lawsuit, a federal judge ruled that the challenges were indeed frivolous.

In Michigan and other states, there were reports of a particularly aggressive form of voter challenge dubbed “no home, no vote,” in which partisans would use home foreclosure lists to challenge voters’ residency. Amid confusion and fears of widespread challenges in key states (in Ohio, these types of challenges could apply to more than 5% of homes), and perhaps the realization that targeting people whohave just lost their homes is not exactly good PR, the Democratic and Republican parties came together and issued a joint statement, affirming that no voter would be challenged on that basis. Last Friday, an Indiana court ruled the same way.

The legal battle over those 200,000 new voters in Ohio whose names did not match state databases raged for weeks. Finally, on October 17th, the US Supreme Court vacated a federal court’s order that would have required the Ohio Secretary of State to turn over these records and subject them to partisan challenges on Election Day. Brunner has since directed county boards of election that they may not challenge voters solely because they do not match state databases. Despite calls to the Attorney General from Ohio Representative John Boehner and President Bush, insisting that these voters should have to vote by provisional ballot on Election Day, reports indicate that so far Michael Mukasey refuses to get involved.

Tried-and-true voter suppression techniques are no longer working, but the fight to keep people on the voter rolls and count their votes is still going strong. There is reason to expect some contentious and partisan voter challenges on Election Day, so it is important for voters to be vigilant. (If there are problems at the polls, report them to the Election Protection Hotline at 1–866-OUR-VOTE).

But overall, the successes of this election season set the stage for some much needed reforms. The takeaway from all of these stories is that our election system is overly complicated, prone to both error and partisan manipulation. People are coming to the realization that voter registration does not have to be so fraught with controversy, and they are eager for a better system.

It is possible to register voters accurately and consistently, and keep them registered even when they move, if we implement a system of universal and permanent voter registration.The federal government could ensure that every eligible citizen is registered to vote automatically, just as it takes responsibility for the Census. Universal and permanent voter registration would bring some welcome consistency and organization to voter rolls. It is a change that this country is ready to make.