Mass-mailers sent to more than 1 million voters in at least eight likely swing states are sowing confusion — and in some cases could disenfranchise voters — across the political spectrum.
Republican mailers sent out in the past two weeks contained either applications for absentee ballots or requests for updated voter registration records. In most cases, the mailers contained missing or confusing information, which could cause voters to believe they would receive an absentee ballot in the mail or be properly registered when they in fact would not.
Pennsylvania voters received absentee ballot requests from the John McCain campaign suggesting that voters cast ballots early by mail.
"It's as easy as 1-2-3," the letter states. But Pennsylvania election officials are cautioning voters that it's not that easy to cast an absentee ballot in the state, where voters need a valid reason for doing so, which the Republican mailers do not explain.
In several states, such as Wisconsin, Missouri and North Carolina, election officials have signaled that mistakes on absentee ballot request forms printed by the McCain campaign were minor enough that the application would be accepted anyway.
In Missouri, for example, the McCain campaign sent voters from both major parties absentee ballot applications. Missouri requires a valid reason for requesting an absentee ballot, which the mailer includes, so election integrity watchers see the Missouri applications as "legitimate."
The McCain campaign sent Wisconsin voters — including many Democrats and independents — an absentee ballot request form that would lead voters to return the forms to the wrong election division, though within the state.
Nathaniel Robinson, elections division administrator in Wisconsin, said his office sent a notice to every election division in the state directing them to forward any absentee ballot applicants to the proper address.
Absentee ballot request forms sent to North Carolina voters did not include a date of birth. But election officials there have said it doesn't matter.
In Ohio, a firestorm has erupted over absentee-ballot request forms printed by the Ohio Republican Party, although the damage could hurt the GOP more than Democrats.
The Republican Party of Ohio sent absentee ballot applications to all Republicans in the state, but they included an extra check-box that certifies you're a valid elector. Although the box wasn't required to be part of the application, Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner (a Democrat) said that once it was there, any of the applications without the box checked would be rejected.
On Monday, she offered a fix by creating a Web site where voters could check on the status of their absentee ballot. Meanwhile, two voters filed a lawsuit against the Hamilton County Election Division for rejecting roughly 800 absentee ballots for the unmarked check-box.
The Ohio snafu is interesting given that the state had just sent absentee ballot request forms to every registered voter on Sept 5.
But the original concern about the Ohio mailings was less about disenfranchising Republicans than it was about minorities, often seen as loyal Democratic voters. While civil rights lawyers, such as with the nonprofit Advancement Project, feared the mailers could be used for a voter caging operation (in which partisans challenge voters based on returned mail), in each of the suspected cases, those suspicions were put to rest because the mailers would not be returned to sender based on its postage.
Such was the case in Florida where a mass-mailer, sent to thousands of Democrats across the state, included what looked like an official voter registration card listing the recipient as a registered Republican. It asks voters to update their registration record with the Republican National Committee in Washington, D.C.
Calls to the Republican National Committee, the Florida Republican Party and the McCain campaign in Florida to explain the mailers were not returned.
"We have a large elderly population," said Steve Hemping, chair of the Collier County Democratic Executive Committee in southern Florida, who received one of the letters. "These folks, when they get a letter like this, it's very confusing at the very least."
Hemping answered more than a dozen phone calls from concerned Democrats. Other Democratic Party leaders in Florida report receiving multiple reports, even 100 phone calls in one case, describing the same mailer throughout the state.
The misinformation going out in each of the mailers throughout the country is different in detail but similar in nature. They also don't originate from the same source. Some come from the McCain-Palin national campaign, individual state Republican parties or the Republican National Committee.
Other instances of deceptive mailings are more anecdotal, and often appear first in left-leaning blogs.
• In Minnesota, a voter reported an absentee ballot request from John McCain that directs the form to Colorado. A call to the McCain campaign in Minnesota was not returned.
• A registered Oregon voter reported receiving an absentee ballot request from the Republican Party (in a state that already votes entirely by mail) with a Pennsylvania return address.
• In Iowa, a Democrat reported receiving a mailer from John McCain suggesting they send absentee ballot applications to Ohio.
Requests for comment to the McCain campaign in Iowa and national McCain campaign headquarters were not immediately returned. A spokesman for the Iowa Republican Party said his office had nothing to do with the mailers.
"This clearly would result in disenfranchising someone if they are diluted to send a form to an erroneous location," said Dan Ashby, co-founder and director of Election Defense Alliance. "If you're targeting people in a class basis, particularly race, it could be a felony. It's certainly defined as a dirty trick."
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