Despite pressure from Ohio Republicans and President George W. Bush, the Justice Department has declined to intervene in a voter dispute in Ohio that could have purged at least 200,000 voters from registration rolls.
Jamie Hais, a spokesman for the civil rights division, said the Justice Department has been "in discussion" with Ohio’s Democratic Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner and is satisfied she has taken steps to ensure compliance with federal laws on voter eligibility.
“The Civil Rights Division is pleased with Secretary Brunner's cooperation, and will continue to monitor the situation in Ohio and take whatever action is deemed appropriate to ensure that there is compliance with the provisions of the Help America Vote Act” of 2002, Hais said.
Additionally, on Thursday, the Justice Department responded to a Wall Street Journal editorial that accused it of not taking Republican accusations of “voter fraud” seriously.
Peter Carr, the Justice Department's acting director of public affairs, wrote to the newspaper that discussions with Brunner led her to issue a directive on Oct. 24 “regarding the processing of duplicate voter registrations and identifying deceased registered voters."
At a press conference Thursday, Brunner confirmed that her office has been working closely with Justice Department attorneys, whom she doubts will get involved in the matter prior to Tuesday's election.
“If we were to just sit back until after the election and do nothing, I wouldn’t blame them for suing us to get it done, but that’s not our intention,” Brunner said. “Our intention all along has been to try to comply" with HAVA.
Last week, President Bush asked Attorney General Michael Mukasey to launch an investigation into the registration of hundreds of thousands of new voters in Ohio, many of whom are expected to vote Democratic.
Bush forwarded to Mukasey a Republican request that he intervene in Ohio to force 200,000 new voters to either verify the information on their registration forms or cast provisional ballots, which are often thrown out after the voter leaves the polling place.
Bush was acting on a letter from Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who said “unless action is taken by the [Justice] Department immediately, thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands of names whose information has not been verified through the [Help America Vote Act] procedures mandated by Congress will remain on the voter rolls during the Nov. 4 election.
“There is a significant risk if not a certainty, that unlawful votes will be cast and counted. … Immediate action by the Department is not only warranted, but also crucial”
Republican presidential nominee John McCain needs Ohio’s 20 electoral votes if he is to defeat his Democratic rival Barack Obama, who is ahead in most national polls and leading in Ohio by five to seven percentage points.
Mark Crispin Miller, a New York University professor and a leading expert on election integrity issues, said Ohio has been shaping up as “the site of litigation by the GOP, so as to nullify a lot of Democratic votes.”
Miller cited “no fewer than nine lawsuits, all of them brought by the Republicans.”
The Ohio Republican Party filed a lawsuit last month against Brunner claiming that voter registration information for hundreds of thousands of new voters did not match official government data, such as Social Security records and driver’s licenses.
The GOP demanded that Brunner turn over county-by-county lists of voters so Republicans could challenge voters with mismatched data. The GOP accused Brunner of violating federal election laws by “actively working to conceal fraudulent activity.”
But Brunner refused, calling the GOP lawsuit a “politically motivated” tactic to disenfranchise voters and create Election Day havoc at polling places.
Voting advocates also note that many mismatches can be irrelevant, such as the use of a middle name in one form but not another or a typographical error in a database.
Further, independent studies have shown that even phony registrations rarely result in illegally cast ballots because there are so many other safeguards built into the system.
For instance, from October 2002 to September 2005, a total of 70 people were convicted for federal election related crimes, according to figures compiled by the New York Times last year. Only 18 of those were for ineligible voting.
In recent years, federal prosecutors reached similar conclusions despite pressure from the Bush administration to lodge "election fraud" charges against ACORN and other voter registration groups seen as bringing more Democratic voters into the democratic process.
On Tuesday, the Ohio Republican Party launched a new statewide ad attacking Brunner and claiming Democrats are trying to "steal the election in Ohio."
“As Election Day approaches, consider this: could Ohio’s election be stolen?” a woman says in the 60-second spot. “Hundreds of thousands of new voter registrations are questionable. Many may be fraudulent. Yet [Ohio] Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner is concealing the evidence.”
The ad is slated to run more than 20 times a day until Nov. 4.
Democratic lawmakers and civil rights groups wrote to the Justice Department asking the agency to live up to its guidelines that discourage voter fraud investigations immediately before elections.
In a letter sent to Mukasey on Tuesday, ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero said, “with the election one week away, this kind of intrusion represents partisan politics at its worst.”
Romero added, “In addition, challenging -- or purging -- lawfully registered voters in the days before the election invites chaos and undermines the integrity of the democratic process.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and five congressional Democratic lawmakers from Ohio, also wrote to Mukasey urging him not to intervene in the dispute.
“The eyes of the nation are once again on Ohio in the Nov. 4 election in this critical election,” Brown and the congressional Democrats said in a letter sent to Mukasey last week.
“We have confidence in the work that is being done by Ohio’s bipartisan group of election officials and by Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. We respectfully request that you refrain from taking any action absent more compelling evidence than partisan political requests.”