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GOP Challenging Voter Registrations

Civil Rights Groups Accuse Republicans Of Trying to Disenfranchise Minorities

By Jo Becker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 29, 2004; Page A05

Republicans yesterday continued to challenge the validity of tens of thousands of voter registrations in Ohio and other key states in the presidential election while a coalition of civil rights and labor groups sued the GOP, contending the Republican efforts were aimed at removing eligible minority voters from the rolls.

After initially saying he would not contest a Wednesday ruling halting the challenges, Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell (R) worked with other election officials who asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati to allow GOP challenges to 35,000 voters from mostly urban and minority areas to proceed before the election. As of late last night, the court had not ruled.

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Also yesterday, Republicans in Wisconsin attempted to challenge the registrations of 5,600 voters in Milwaukee but were turned down in a unanimous decision by the city's bipartisan election board.

The Republican challenges in Ohio, Wisconsin and other battleground states prompted civil rights and labor unions to sue in U.S. District Court in Newark, saying the GOP is violating a consent decree, issued in the 1980s by Judge Dickinson R. Debevoise and still in effect, that prevents the Republicans from starting "ballot security" programs to prevent voter fraud that target minorities.

Judith A. Browne, acting co-director of the Advancement Project, which filed the lawsuit along with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said the Republican "challenges were, and currently are, used to disenfranchise minority voters."

But Republicans denied that they were targeting black voters. Bobby Burchfield, an attorney for the Republican National Committee, told Debevoise that "troubling reports" of fictitious names such as Mary Poppins appearing on Ohio's rolls prompted the challenges.

Debevoise, who scheduled a hearing for Monday, expressed concern that widespread challenges on the fear of fraud could unnecessarily disrupt polling places.

The legal maneuvering is a testament to the legalization of presidential politics that resulted from the bitterly disputed presidential contest in 2000 between George W. Bush and Al Gore, which deadlocked in Florida. Both parties have embarked on litigation over voting rules in many states and have thousands of lawyers poised for Election Day.

The move in Milwaukee, a heavily minority and Democratic stronghold, is part of a national effort by Republicans in many battleground states to challenge voter registrations.

A similar effort by a former Nevada GOP operative to question 17,000 Democratic voters in Las Vegas was rejected earlier this month by election officials there. Republicans have also filed plans in Florida and Colorado to place watchers who can challenge voters in those key states on Election Day.

Challenge rules vary by state. In general, challengers must supply evidence that the voter may not be eligible. Grounds can include that a voter is not a U.S. citizen, is not a resident of the state or county where he or she is registered, or is younger than 18. The complaints are settled by election board members or precinct judges.

Republicans argue that their program -- the most robust in recent history -- is necessary because unprecedented voter registration drives by Democratic-leaning interest groups have produced thousands of phony registrations. But Democrats say that the GOP's Milwaukee challenges are a perfect example of the party trying to imply fraud where none exists. Lawyers for John F. Kerry's campaign successfully argued before the election board there that the analysis the GOP used to challenge voters was riddled with mistakes.

Courts in the past found that Republicans used tactics that were aimed at intimidating minority voters and suppressing their votes. The consent decrees in New Jersey stemmed from several incidents in the 1980s.

In 1981, the Republican National Committee sent letters to predominantly black neighborhoods in New Jersey, and when 45,000 letters were returned as undeliverable, the committee compiled a challenge list to remove those voters from the rolls. The RNC sent off-duty law enforcement officials to the polls and hung posters in heavily black neighborhoods warning that violating election laws is a crime.

In 1986, the RNC tried to have 31,000 voters, most of them black, removed from the rolls in Louisiana when a party mailer was returned. The consent decrees that resulted prohibited the party from engaging in anti-fraud initiatives that target minorities or conduct mail campaigns to "compile voter challenge lists."

Undeliverable mail is the basis for this year's challenges in Ohio. Republicans also sent mail to about 130,000 voters in Philadelphia, another heavily black and Democratic stronghold.

The civil rights groups and labor unions, which are backed by the Democratic Party, also charged that GOP plans to put challengers in thousands of precincts nationwide on Election Day are race-based. In several Florida counties, for instance, GOP challengers will disproportionately be based in black precincts.

Republicans said their plans involve putting challengers in precincts won handily by either Bush or Gore and has nothing to do with race.

Special correspondent Michelle Garcia in Newark contributed to this report.

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