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.
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.
The electronic lists have been coming online gradually, and for 31 states, this will be the first time they are used in a presidential election.
As the databases are implemented, voters' names and other information are verified against state driver's license records or Social Security records to determine their eligibility. Federal law allows each state to decide what constitutes a match -- whether it will accept nicknames, for example.
But states are not using "the best scientific knowledge known today" when they verify the information, said Herbert Lin, who is studying the issue for the federal Election Assistance Commission, which oversees election reforms.
By federal law, anyone whose name is flagged must be notified and given a chance to prove his or her eligibility. But voting rights experts say voters are not always alerted, and even if they are, some may decide to simply skip the election. If questions about eligibility remain on Election Day, those voters are entitled to cast a "provisional" ballot. But which of those ballots are ultimately counted depends on local and state rules.
Several of the battles over registration lists have taken on a partisan tinge, including in Montana, where a state GOP official challenged nearly 6,000 voters over apparent discrepancies in their addresses. He dropped his challenge after Democrats went to court, but not before one county sent letters to hundreds of voters informing them that their registrations were in jeopardy. Now the county is trying to let them know they are eligible to cast ballots after all.
The Republicans filed the case "with the express intent to disenfranchise voters," a federal judge said.
In light of the Supreme Court ruling yesterday, Ohio's Republican Party said it is looking at its options in state court to try again to force Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat, to produce lists of voters whose registration information conflicted with driver's license data or Social Security records.
Brunner called the court challenge "another partisan lawsuit." The state Republican chairman shot back that Brunner "continues to do everything she can to help her candidate."
Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, who co-chairs John McCain's campaign in that state, is demanding that election officials use the database to re-verify the identities of voters who registered going back to 2006.
The elections board has refused, citing the database's error rate. The issue has gone to court, and a ruling is expected next week.
Among the errors with Wisconsin's database, which has been fully in place just since August, are incorrect ages for 95,000 voters, all of whom are listed as 108 years old. If no birth date was available when names were moved into the electronic system, it automatically assigned Jan. 1, 1900.
In court filings, Van Hollen said "tens of thousands" of ineligible voters could cast ballots, noting that Wisconsin "will be a swing state" whose 10 electoral votes "may be won by a very narrow margin."
The crush of new registrants around the country has heightened the problems, including in Colorado, where 22,000 must clear up questions about their addresses and other discrepancies before they can cast a regular ballot.
In Alabama, the centralized system triggered a new controversy over a constitutional ban on voting by people convicted of a felony crime of "moral turpitude." The governor's office in the past year issued a list of 480 crimes that meet the definition, including disrupting a funeral and conspiring to set an illegal brush fire.
Alabama's court administrator and attorney general issued a shorter list of 70 more violent and serious crimes. But Secretary of State Beth Chapman said the longer list was used to identify ineligible voters until three weeks ago.
Among those wrongly flagged by the database was former Republican governor Guy Hunt, who was driven out of office in 1993 after being convicted of a felony ethics violation for misusing inaugural funds. But Hunt, 75, received a pardon that declared him innocent a decade ago.
"Well, he's voted ever since the pardon, so he sure shouldn't be on any list now," said Hunt's son, Keith, in a telephone interview.
The former governor, who has run for office since he was pardoned, was included on a "monthly felons check" sent to a county registrar this year. The document, obtained by The Washington Post, contains 107 names of purported felons, but 41 of them committed only misdemeanors, according to the handwritten notations of a county staffer.
Chapman, a Republican, stressed that any ban can be appealed. But state Sen. Zeb Little (D), who has reviewed other cases, said, "I am certain that people will be turned away at polls in November over this for no valid reason."
In Georgia, the database has so far labeled 2,600 people as noncitizens.
That nearly cost American-born Nelson Tyler, a civilian contractor in Afghanistan, his vote. The system mistakenly tagged Tyler when a Social Security number popped up belonging to a noncitizen.
After receiving a letter from DeKalb County saying he had to prove his citizenship, Tyler protested and resubmitted his number. Within days, he got an e-mail apologizing for the mix-up. In it, a county elections official said she had told her staff not to rely solely on the database when verifying ballot requests because "we had found it was not 100% accurate."
Tyler cast his absentee ballot, but he said in an interview that the experience was unsettling. The closer the elections get, he said by e-mail, "the more these types of disqualifying tactics begin to rear their ugly heads."