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Will Republicans Use Contested Voter Registration Lists to Scare New Voters?

The GOP push for lists of voters whose registrations don't match state and federal databases may be prelude to a big intimidation campaign.
 
 
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On Friday, the U.S. Supreme Court told Ohio's Republican Party it was not entitled to a list of 200,000-plus Ohioans whose voter registration information did not match Social Security and state drivers' license databases. What did the Ohio party do? It went judge shopping, filing a closely related suit before Ohio's Supreme Court. Pennsylvania's GOP filed a similar suit on Friday. In Wisconsin, litigation on this issue is ongoing.

Why are Republicans so intent on obtaining this information?

So far, most of the analysis by election law experts have focused on Election Day scenarios. They posit that Republicans could use the lists to legally challenge the credentials of new voters or a close vote count. Such challenges would cause delays at polling places. They could result in voters being given provisional ballots, which must be verified before they are counted. Fights over provisional ballots could be the 2008 version of the Florida presidential recount.

The Ohio Republican Party threw a curious wrench into this thinking on Wednesday when a spokesman said his party would not pursue voter challenges. But two days later, the state party went to Ohio's Supreme Court seeking the same lists. (It already had asked all of Ohio's 88 county election boards for the data.) This posturing would seem contradictory unless there were other plans for those lists before Election Day.

In recent weeks, the McCain-Palin campaign and Republican Party have embarked on a major media and litigation strategy to cast as much doubt as possible on the veracity of the 2008 vote. A look at the campaign's recent messaging and GOP tactics from Ohio's 2004 election suggest another use for the non-match lists: to target voters for mass phone calls, mailings, or other messaging to deter them from voting on Nov. 4.

The New York Times reported Saturday that as the Obama campaign was outspending McCain by a four-to-one ratio on television ads, the McCain campaign was making "hundreds of thousands of automated telephone calls -- uniformly negative and sometimes misleading" to voters in 10 battleground states. In these calls, the GOP linked Obama to former 1960s radicals and wealthy Hollywood politicos.

There is no reason why GOP could not use the 'no-match' voter registration lists to make similar calls to hundreds of thousands of newly registered voters in Ohio -- and other battleground states -- that call into question the legality of those voter registrations.

During the final presidential debate, McCain signaled his campaign would continue to raise this issue. Speaking of ACORN, the low-income advocacy group, he accused it of perpetuating "one of the greatest frauds of voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy in this country" because some ACORN employees turned in fabricated registrations among the 1.3 million submitted by the group.

If the Ohio Republican Party obtains the lists of 200,000-plus Ohio voters where the information on registration forms did not match state and federal databases -- even as Social Security officials have said their data could be wrong up to 28.5 percent of the time when used this way -- it could program computers to call those voters and say their registrations potentially violate laws, a deliberate exaggeration to deter turnout.

There are precedents for this tactic from the 2008 campaign as well as from Ohio in 2004.

In Philadelphia, the Daily News reported earlier this month that flyers were distributed in minority neighborhoods telling prospective voters they could be arrested while voting for outstanding traffic tickets. In 2004, members of the "Texas Strike Force," a group of GOP volunteers, used hotel pay phones in downtown Columbus, Ohio, to call likely Democratic voters and tell them that they could be arrested if they voted.

Moreover, in 2004 in Lake County, Ohio, a fabricated post card was sent to likely Democratic voters with the title "Urgent Advisory" from the "Lake County Board of Elections." Dated October 22, 2004, it said:

"The voter registration deadline passed on October 4, 2004 and we registered a record number of new voters. The demand on our office has been great and we appreciate your cooperation. Unfortunately, independent efforts by the NAACP, Americans Coming Together, John Kerry for President and the Capri Cafaro for Congress campaigns have been illegally registering people to vote and to apply for absentee ballots. This is a terrible occurrence that will undermine the process of democracy. If you have been registered by any of these entities then you may run the risk of being illegally registered to vote. Please be advised that if you were registered in this capacity that you will not be able to vote until the next election. We apologize for these problems and we will pursue these entities to the fullest extent. Please notify the Lake County Sheriff's office if you have any questions."

It is not difficult to see how the GOP could substitute ACORN for the 2004 Democratic campaigns cited in this card.

On Friday, the Obama campaign formally asked the U.S. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey to expand the Justice Department's inquiry into the administration's firing of federal prosecutors who did not pursue "voter fraud" cases to include a leak by the FBI on Thursday revealing ACORN was under investigation. That disclosure violated the Justice Department's rules prohibiting statements that could have political consequences in an election.

The McCain campaign's response, apart from scoffing at the Obama campaign, was to reaffirm its commitment to raising "voter registration fraud" issues between now and Election Day.

"Rest assured that, despite these threats, the McCain-Palin campaign will continue to address the serious issue of voter registration fraud by ACORN and other partisan groups, and compliance by states with the Help America Vote Act's requirement of matching new voter registrations with state data bases to prevent voter fraud," Rick Davis, the McCain-Palin 2008 Campaign Manager, said in a media teleconference late Friday.

According to the Social Security Administration, between January and September 2008, there were 289,603 non-matches in Ohio, 72,137 non-matches in Pennsylvania, 4,546 non-matches in Wisconsin, and 716,252 non-matches in Nevada, 265,691 non-matches in Georgia, and 57,887 non-matches in Indiana.

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