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Thousands Face Mix-Ups In Voter Registrations

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By Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 18, 2008

Thousands of voters across the country must reestablish their eligibility in the next three weeks in order for their votes to count on Nov. 4, a result of new state registration systems that are incorrectly rejecting them.

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The challenges have led to a dozen lawsuits, testy arguments among state officials and escalating partisan battles. Because many voters may not know that their names have been flagged, eligibility questions could cause added confusion on Election Day, beyond the delays that may come with a huge turnout.

The scramble to verify voter registrations is happening as states switch from locally managed lists of voters to statewide databases, a change required by federal law and hailed by many as a more efficient and accurate way to keep lists up to date.

But in the transition, the systems are questioning the registrations of many voters when discrepancies surface between their registration information and other official records, often because of errors outside voters' control.

The issue made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which yesterday blocked a challenge to 200,000 Ohio voters whose registration data conflicted with other state records.

It is impossible to know how many voters are affected nationwide. There are no reports of large-scale problems in Virginia, Maryland or the District, but the trouble is cropping up in many states.

In Alabama, scores of voters are being labeled as convicted felons on the basis of incorrect lists.

Michigan must restore thousands of names it illegally removed from voter rolls over residency questions, a judge ruled this week.

Tens of thousands of voters could be affected in Wisconsin. Officials there admit that their database is wrong one out of five times when it flags voters, sometimes for data discrepancies as small as a middle initial or a typo in a birth date. When the six members of the state elections board -- all retired judges -- ran their registrations through the system, four were incorrectly rejected because of mismatches.

As the gateway to voting, the new registration lists have become the focus of attention from many fronts, including voting rights advocates, officials concerned about fraud and political campaigns looking for an advantage.

It is "this season's big issue," said Wendy R. Weiser, who directs voting rights projects for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University's School of Law, noting that efforts to keep names off the lists are "a new trend, not in the majority of states but in the battleground states."

The changes stem from the Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress in 2002 in the aftermath of the deadlocked presidential race two years earlier. The law provided millions of dollars for states to upgrade voting equipment and procedures, and to create the centralized databases, which allow voters in most states to check their registrations and polling places on the Internet.


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