Democracy and Elections

Obama Campaign Sues Michigan GOP over Voter Challenges

Obama says the GOP is continuing a historic pattern to thwart Democratic voters, while the GOP says Obama's suit is based on a false media report.
The Obama campaign filed a federal lawsuit in Michigan on Tuesday, responding to statements by a local Republican Party official who last week said the GOP was planning to challenge the voting rights of people who lost their homes to foreclosure. The local GOP official in question Tuesday denied he made those statements, demanding a retraction from an independent Michigan website and threatening to sue for libel.

"This 'lose your home, lose your vote' program is part of a broader scheme -- misnamed an 'election integrity' program -- to harass voters and suppress the vote throughout the State of Michigan in the upcoming election," the campaign's lawsuit said. "Republicans stated in the press that they are taking overt steps, including the acquisition or preparation of lists of homes subject to foreclosure proceedings and public announcement -- that is, the beginning of the suppression effort -- to accomplish their voter suppression goals."

Voters who move must update their voter registration information with their current address, although Michigan law has some flexibility for people who move 30-to-60 days before an Election. The GOP apparently was seeking to confront likely Democratic voters with the allegation their registrations had lapsed since being forced to move.

But on the same day the Obama campaign sued the Macomb County Republican Party, the Michigan Republican Party and the Republican National Committee, James Carabelli, the Macomb County GOP chairman whose statements in an independent press account sparked the litigation, denied he had made those remarks and threatened his own suit.

Carabelli said Tuesday that he never told a writer for MichiganMessenger.com, that "we will have a list of foreclosed homes and will make sure people aren't voting from those addresses," as the Web site reported last week.

"This story is not true. The Michigan Messenger made it up," he said in a release issued by the Michigan Republican Party. "Let me state, again and unequivocally, there is no such plan to use foreclosure lists to challenger voters, and I never said there was. This is a story line being pushed by one liberal blog, the (Barack) Obama campaign, and their friends and operatives on the left."

But the Michigan Messenger and its reporter are standing by its report. "The easiest thing to do when the facts don't meet your needs is to claim they're false," said David Bennahum, president and CEO of The Center for Independent Media, which runs MichiganMessenger.com and five other Web publications. "We have a fantastic record for accuracy."

The Obama campaign lawsuit seeks a court order that would recognize foreclosed individuals as a "class action," meaning it potentially could affect thousands of voters. It also seeks a "temporary, preliminary and/or permanent order prohibiting the Defendants … from challenging Michigan voters on the basis of the presence of particular property on a listing of foreclosure filings."

During a teleconference Tuesday, Obama campaign general counsel Bob Bauer said the "lose your home, lose your vote" strategy "creates an atmosphere of intimidation that could drive voters from the polls." During a voter challenge, other voters often have to wait while poll workers attempt to verify the challenged voter's information.

Obama also mentioned the controversy at an event Tuesday, where he, running mate Joe Biden and a dozen other Democratic senators called on U.S. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey to ensure that voters facing foreclosure are not targeted.

The controversy over challenging the voter registrations of people who have lost their homes to foreclosure is just the latest Republican-connected voter suppression story to emerge from Michigan.

In recent years, voting rights attorneys say Terri Lynn Land, Michigan's Republican Secretary of State, has purged -- or removed -- people from voter rolls in violation of the National Voter Registration Act, which regulates how voter lists are to be maintained. Moreover, John McCain's campaign has also sent out absentee ballot application forms to Michigan voters with 'incorrect' return addresses for the recipient, which could cause that voter's registration to be cancelled because the application's return address does not match other residency information.

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