Voting Rights Activists Win Big Cases in Florida and Arizona

A series of court decisions this week supporting voting rights advocates in Florida and Arizona may bode well for more open and accountable elections in 2008.

That is because the cases involve major trend-setting aspects of elections: whether you can block new laws that disenfranchise thousands of new voters because of errors in state databases, and whether you can catch partisans who alter electronic vote counts. In both instances, courts sided with voting rights advocates against state and local officials.

The decisions are part of a pattern of recent rulings where draconian state election laws passed immediately after the 2004 election are being overturned. Those laws, passed by Republican-controlled legislatures to stop "voter fraud," or people impersonating other voters, affected voter registration drives and voter ID requirements. The other piece of this pattern is many states, and now a court in Arizona, are demanding new levels of accountability in paperless electronic voting systems.

"I'm optimistic," said Michael Slater of Project Vote, a national, nonpartisan voter registration and voting rights organization. "If you look at what's happening across the country, I see gains ... It's a story that's not being told."

In Florida, a federal judge blocked a law that prevented people from registering to vote if election officials could not match the person's Social Security or driver's license number to a state database. That ruling came after introducing evidence that as of October 2007, 14,000 applications were in danger of being rejected because of the law. A similar "no-match, no-vote" law was previously thrown out in Washington state.

"We think it is incredibly significant in that it is the second decision in the country that struck down a state statute that prevents the registration of applicants whose information in their application cannot be matched with either the Social Security database or Department of Motor Vehicle database," said Elizabeth Westfall, senior attorney with Advancement Project, a national voting rights law firm that worked with groups from Florida's African-American, Haitian-American and Latino communities.

"On the ground, we think this is really significant because the Florida statute that we were challenging was preventing Latino and African-American applicants from getting onto the voter roles," Westfall said. "The state presented no evidence that the statute was doing what it was designed to do. The state could not show it could prevent fraud in registration, but it was keeping applicants of color off the roll."

The voting rights groups successfully argued that the Social Security and driver's license databases contained errors -- such as typos or a married name instead of a maiden name -- when contrasted with voter registration applications, and those discrepancies should not be used to deny the right to vote. Other states have more permissive standards, allowing people to use bank statements, utility bills or other government documents to verify their identity when registering to vote.

Florida Secretary of State Kurt Browning said he would appeal the ruling by U.S. District Judge Stephan Mickle. However Westfall said an appeal was not likely to be heard before the state's late January presidential primary. If upheld, she said the ruling could have a major impact on voter registration efforts before the 2008 presidential election.

"It will have a huge impact on 2008," she said.

That is because registration drives have been slowed in Florida because of another law passed after the 2004 election -- which also was subsequently overturned in court -- that imposed stiff new penalties and deadlines for voter registration drives. Florida's GOP-majority legislature passed those laws after grassroots groups successfully raised the state's minimum wage in a statewide ballot initiative campaign in 2004.

Thus, the 14,000 people who were being kept off Florida's voter roles as of October 2007 represent voter registration under a now-rejected tougher regime in an off-election year.

"Voter registration drives had been chilled prior to that injunction," Westfall said, referring to the voter drive restrictions. "Voter registration in 2008 will be much higher."

Electronic voting records to be released

In Arizona, whether Americans will be able to verify electronic vote counts in 2008's presidential election received a boost after a county judge ruled the local Democratic Party was entitled to see two electronic voting databases from the 2006 primary and general election. The ruling is in the county where the city of Tucson is located.

"It's very positive decision for us," said William Risner, attorney for the local Democrats and election integrity activists. "We certainly feel it is a victory. They made us fight and claw and stomped us to prevent us from getting where we've gotten, and we prevailed. And if we have to fight some more to get the rest of the way, we'll get there."

The ruling, by Pima County Superior Court Judge Michael Miller, is something of a mixed decision for the local Democrats and election integrity activists. That is because the party sued to get access to the electronic records of a 2006 transportation bond vote that it believed was electronically hacked -- in order to win. Judge Miller, however, did not grant permission for the Democrats to look at the records in that race but instead granted permission for the party to examine the electronic records of two other votes. Thus, the judge affirmed that electronic voting records are public documents, but he delayed turning over the records in the controversial $2 billion transit bond vote.

"We still have a few wrinkles to work out," Risner said. "We need to get a finer point on when we can get the (transit bond) database in the future. But the judge specifically left it open for us to come back in and have a hearing, and the issues that will be looked at we will win on."

Still, John Brakey, co-founder of AUDIT-AZ, or Americans United for Democracy, Integrity, and Transparency in Elections, Arizona, said the 2006 primary election records that the court granted access to could reveal foul play -- even though it was the not transit ballot measure that prompted the litigation.

In that primary, Brakey said county officials appear to have printed the "primary results" on the Saturday before Election Day and hours before a "robo-call," or computerized telephone campaign, attacked a Democratic state senate candidate, Ted Stevens, who opposed local developers. Stevens subsequently lost in the primary election.

"I would prefer to have the RTA, but I will take the primary of 2006," he said, referring to the $2 billion transit bond vote. "It will show us patterns ... We will get the primary. That is where they played some hanky panky."

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