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It May Be Harder to Vote in Swing States

With fewer than two weeks before Election Day, lawyers for both parties are in the courtroom sparring over voting rights.

Here's a rundown of various issues that could limit voter access in 10 swing states:

Republicans in Ohio launched separate lawsuits in October aimed at challenging the eligibility of more than 200,000 voters whose registration records submitted this year did not initially match either the federal Social Security or state motor vehicle databases as required by federal law.

When the Supreme Court on Oct. 17 rejected their request, Republicans filed a similar suit with the Ohio Supreme Court. The court action would mean that roughly a third of all new or changed voter registration records submitted this year would have to be re-examined.

The Columbus Dispatchreported last week that the Ohio Republican Party was requesting the names of all voters who have registered since Sept 1. And The Washington Postreported that a Hamilton County prosecutor subpoenaed the records of 266 voters who registered and voted during an early-voting window earlier in October when Democratic volunteers bussed hundreds of homeless people to the polls.

The deadline to file mass-challenges of voters has passed and Ohio Republican Party officials have said they have no plans to challenge individual voters on Election Day, although some activists remain suspicious.

Ohio Republicans likely shot themselves in the foot earlier in October when they sent out more than 1 million absentee ballot request forms. Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner ordered counties to reject thousands of those applications because of an extraneous box that many applicants left unchecked. The Ohio GOP went to court in at least two counties to try and override Brunner's decision. Those cases were still ongoing at press time.

Also in Ohio, AlterNet reporter Steven Rosenfeld writes that various county prosecutors, along with the FBI, are threatening prosecution of voter registration groups — including ACORN, which registered 1.3 million voters this year.

ACORN — the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now — is a housing advocacy group best known of late for its voter registration drives, the fraud allegations it has spawned and for its calls to spend some of the financial bailout on individual homeowners, which has irked some of the right like Sen. Lindsey Graham. Its name has become a rallying cry by Republicans to link voter registration drives by a Democratic-leaning organization to a national conspiracy of voter fraud — at the last presidential debate, Sen. John McCain alleged ACORN's acts were "maybe destroying the fabric of democracy."

ACORN, for its part, has consistently defended its conduct this election cycle by noting that it routinely identified suspect registration cards delivered by canvassers it hired. In addition, outside commenters have stressed that registrations in phony names or nonexistent addresses is not the pathway to phony votes.

The Pennsylvania GOP filed a similar lawsuit as in Ohio, seeking an order directing the names of all ineligible registrants be delivered to county election officials for re-examination.

Plaintiffs are also seeking an order blocking ACORN from all attempts to "encourage voters who have submitted false or duplicate registration forms from voting or attempting to vote in the 2008 General Election," according to a Pennsylvania GOP press release.

The lawsuit, in addition, asks that ACORN fund public service announcements educating all first-time voters about the requirements to present identification at the polls. Pennsylvania Republicans, in addition, demand that the Secretary of State provide a significantly larger amount of provisional ballots at each polling place. In 2004, out of roughly 2 million provisional ballots cast nationally, about one-third were never counted.

Voting rights advocates also named Pennsylvania, along with Ohio and Virginia, as states that are unprepared for voter turnout.

Also in Pennsylvania, the state votes almost entirely on Direct-Recording-Electronic voting machines without a voter-verified paper trail, the most insecure type of voting method.

Early voting in Indiana began a week ago even as Republicans in Lake County, the most heavily Democratic area of the state, attempted to shut down three early-voting sites. A chairman of a Republican county committee and a member of the county election board filed suit, arguing that the polling sites were not unanimously approved by the board and shouldn't be allowed. A judge was expected to rule on the case this week.

Thousands of intended votes for president could be lost by North Carolina voters who cast a straight-party ticket but don't also mark the ballot for their presidential choice. A straight-party ticket allows voters to mark one bubble for a specified party as a way to cast a ballot for every candidate of that party.

In North Carolina a straight-party vote doesn't count for president. Although the ballot clearly states this, thousands of voters will likely neglect to follow the instructions. For one reason, the voter pamphlet does not mention anything about the issue, according to Joyce McCloy, coordinator of N.C. Coalition for Verified Voting.

North Carolina in both the past two presidential elections experienced higher than normal under-vote counts — the number of ballots that fail to register a vote for president. Election analysts typically expect a 1 percent under-vote, but North Carolina had a 2.6 percent under-vote in 2004, representing more than 92,000 voters. In 2000, the state recorded a 3.2 percent under-vote.

It's difficult to determine the reason for the under-vote, but McCloy and others believe the straight-party ticket, which has existed since the 1960s, is the likely culprit.

"Year after year, article after article says we need to get rid of the straight-party ticket," but Democrats who control both legislative chambers and the governor's office have failed to do so, McCloy said.

A similar straight-party ticket issue — this one unintentional — was caught in early audits of the optical scanners used to count paper ballots in New Mexico. In this case, however, the ballots that registered straight-party tickets should have recorded a vote for president, but the machines weren't picking it up. The problem has since been solved.

Voters heading to the polls come Election Day will have good reason to be anxious following their experience in the statewide caucuses in March when 1 in 9 voters in the Democratic primary had to cast a provisional ballot because of a snafu blamed on exceptional turnout. In Las Vegas, N.M., 20 percent of voters, including the supervisor of elections, were deleted from the rolls.

New Mexico is also home to the most restrictive law against third-party voter registration groups. Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat and supporter of presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, said he would consider revising the state law, but no such action has been taken since reported in August on a lawsuit filed on behalf of four voter registration groups.

On Friday, New Mexico Republicans said they "believe 28 people voted fraudulently" in a statehouse primary race in June.

More than 7,000 would-be voters in Florida were snagged in the first month when the state began enforcing the controversial "no-match" voter ID law on Sept. 8.

The law requires that new voter registration records get checked against Social Security and motor vehicle ID numbers using the most stringent standard of any state. Voting rights advocates contend the law would bar people from voting if the name on any of the three records doesn't match exactly. The Florida Election Division, meanwhile, says that common mistakes will be rectified and the voter will be allowed to vote, but the state law doesn't specify such leeway.

Based on reports from the Orlando Sentinel, 228,795 new voter registrations have been filed between Sept. 8 and Oct 6. Of those, 32,847 have been flagged and sent to the agency's voter registration bureau, with 10,422 sent down to county election supervisors to try and confirm identifications. The counties have resolved 2,933 of them so far.

"Around 9,000 applications out of 600,000 were still unresolved, but those applications are not 'rejected,'" said Jennifer Davis, communications director for the Florida Department of State. "The applicant has until Election Day to provide a copy of their identification in order to vote a regular ballot. If the application has not been resolved on Election Day, the applicant can vote a provisional ballot and has two days to resolve it after Election Day."

Meanwhile, Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning threatened legal action against Pinellas County Election Supervisor Deborah Clark, who wanted to allow voters to fix their "non-matching" voter registration records at the polls. Under Florida law, if a voter's registration status is disputed (for reasons other than residency), that voter must cast a provisional ballot and submit proof of identity within 48 hours regardless of any information submitted at the polls.

Florida ACORN, too, faced recent accusations of registration fraud from the GOP, although Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, rejected any notion of systemic fraud in his state.

And Florida Democrats were the target of thousands of misleading mailers sent from the Republican National Committee.

A similar "no-match" controversy erupted in Wisconsin, where Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen is suing the state to enforce its matching criteria on voters who registered over the past two years.

State officials balked at his argument because they acknowledge the state database is incorrect one out of five times. Even four out of six state election board members had their records improperly rejected because of mismatches. If successful, the lawsuit could disenfranchise tens of thousands of Wisconsin voters.

During hearings in the case last week, both parties cited the U.S. Supreme Court regarding a similar case in Ohio as reasoning to justify their positions.

Meanwhile, Democrats are crying intimidation after the state GOP advertisied for "Milwaukee area veterans, policemen, security personnel, firefighters etc.," to observe polling in the inner-city precincts. Republican Party spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski told the press that the GOP was concerned about voter fraud in Milwaukee, a Democratic stronghold. The executive director of the state's League of Women Voters of Wisconsin was quoted by The Associated Press as saying the move sounded "heavy-handed and inappropriate."

Last week, The New York Timesreported that 6,400 new voters who failed to check a certain box on their registration form could be barred from voting.

Colorado is also home to some of the most aggressive voter-roll purges, having changed or canceled nearly 1 in 5 voter registrations in 2005 and 2006. As and The New York Times have recently pointed out, Colorado's voter purges at the county level within 90 days of the election are likely illegal based on the National Voter Registration Act.

Purges based on nondeliverable confirmation letters sent from county clerks — which may also be illegal — could strike many homeless people from the rolls who recently registered.

In Michigan, a judge ordered last week that voting rights to 1,500 people be restored after the state deleted them from the rolls because voter identification cards mailed to them were returned as undeliverable.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Advancement Project, which brought suit against the state, believed that 30,000 new voters were deleted for the same reason this year. The question of whether the voting rights of some 180,000 voters purged annually by sharing motor vehicle records with nearby states should be restored has yet to be answered.

Also in Michigan, the Republican Party agreed through a court settlement not to use foreclosure notices to challenge voters based on discrepancies in their voter registration records.

Thor Hearne, founder of the now-defunct American Center For Voting Rights, which mainly pushed for photo ID requirements, tried to make a mark on his home state of Missouri earlier this year by advocating for a proposed proof of citizenship requirement in order to vote. The state Legislature rejected the bill.

Missouri's ACORN chapter was one of a dozen state chapters singled out in October for purported registration fraud, perhaps not unexpected given convictions against ACORN functionaries for perjury in 2000 and fraud in 2006 related to their registration drives.

Missouri's Republican Gov. Matt Blunt has taken a particularly hard line. After directly accusing ACORN of engaging in voter fraud again — "Registration fraud has only one purpose and that is voter fraud" — he issued a challenge:

"I am calling on all Missouri clerks, election directors and prosecutors to be alert and vigilant, responding immediately to any and all allegations of voter fraud. It is the responsibility of all political parties to carefully watch over our election process while recognizing that under no circumstance should anyone ever intimidate voters."

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