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Chaos Campaign: Will Ohio GOP Block Voters at Polls in 2008?

Ohio's GOP says there will be no challenges of voters this year. But Democrats point to actions suggesting otherwise.
 
 
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Ohio's Republican Party will not challenge the voter registrations of thousands of Ohioans before the 2008 election or on Election Day, a party spokesman said Wednesday in a surprising statement on the eve of this year's deadline for notifying Ohio's 88 county election boards of large-scale voter credential challenges.

"If you are asking if we are planning to do any challenges, the answer is no," said John McClelland, Ohio Republican Party spokesman. "We are not planning to challenge."

McClelland's surprising comment was met with raised eyebrows by Democrats in Ohio, including by the Secretary of State's office -- which has been sued by Ohio Republicans over numerous aspects of its management of the 2008 election.

"We don't have any official comment on that one," said Kevin Kidder, a spokesman for Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat.

Another staffer in Brunner's office pointed to an Associated Press report this week where the Ohio GOP asked election officials in Licking County for a list of the people who registered and voted during a five-day early window this month, suggesting that request was intended to challenge those voters' credentials. Only last week, a county prosecutor and sheriff in southwest Ohio dropped a similar inquiry after civil rights lawyers told them they would be violating federal laws designed to stop voter intimidation.

"This is the real story," Brunner spokesman Bryan Clark said.

The Columbus Dispatch also reported on Thursday that the Ohio Republican Party was seeking the names of all voters who registered since September first, and all individuals who registered to vote and then cast ballots during a week-long window earlier this month.

Brunner told the Dispatch that Republicans were trying to inject "chaos" into the election process as a strategy to undermine voter turnout.

A Important Deadline
While the bottom line may not be known until Election Day, Wednesday was the deadline for filing mass voter challenges in Ohio. That deadline comes days before a federal appeals court ordered the Brunner staff to turn over records that theoretically could be used to challenge the voting credentials of tens of thousands of Ohioans -- if the Ohio Republican Party chose that course. Late on Wednesday, Brunner appealed that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, the New York Times reported.

"It does open up the potential for there to be challenges on Election Day, but hopefully something can be worked out so that intimidation tactic cannot be utilized," said Tova Wang, vice president of research at Common Cause.

On Tuesday, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Brunner to tell Ohio's 88 county election boards when information in new voter registrations did not match either federal Social Security or state motor vehicle databases. The Social Security Administration received 741,000 requests to match Ohio voter file information between January and September this year and found 289,603 "non-matches," a spokesman said. That method of verifying voter registrations can be wrong up to 28.5 percent of the time, the agency has said, pointing to data-entry errors and other problems.

The emergence of database matching as an election issue is of great concern to civil rights advocates who say voter challenges can create major delays at polls on Election Day and can lead to complicated litigation if the results are contested afterward. Voters who are not on polling place registration lists will be given provisional ballots, which have to be validated immediately following the election before they are counted. Some attorneys see a scenario where the parties could fight over these ballots much as they fought over hanging chads in Florida's 2000 presidential race, where computer punch cards were used.

Under the 6th Circuit ruling, Brunner must make the no-match list available to county officials by Friday -- two days after Ohio's 2008 deadline for filing mass voter challenges. Thus, it appears that list of nearly 280,000 non-matches will not be available to the Ohio GOP for this purpose. The party is not precluded from pursuing polling place challenges, although that is a more remote possibility in 2008 than it was four years ago.

Since 2004, the state's voter challenge laws have changed. Last month Brunner issued a directive seeking to "harmonize" the Ohio and federal laws concerning voter challenges. Under that directive, polling place voter challenges are limited to a narrower range of issues than the challenges whose deadline was Wednesday.

Election Day challenges can only be brought by a political party's official representative at a polling place. Moreover, these challenges are limited to whether a voter's citizenship information, residency in the month before the election, residency in the precinct they are voting or legal voting age is correct in their voter registration files. In contrast, challenges filed before Election Day can look at more issues, such as one's mental fitness to vote.

Brunner's staff said she would likely issue an additional directive in coming days on how to use the state and federal databases to ensure eligible voters do not lose their right to vote. Political observers in Ohio suspect the Ohio GOP will go back to court, arguing anyone on a no-match list must vote by provisional ballot.

There are 8.2 million registered voters in Ohio, with a net increase of 665,000 new voters added since January, according to Brunner's office.

Steven Rosenfeld is a senior fellow at Alternet.org and author of Count My Vote: A Citizen's Guide to Voting (AlterNet Books, 2008).