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Voter Disenfranchisement: Politicization at the DOJ Leads To Questionable Voter Purge Attempts

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Weekly Voting Rights News Update

This an entry in a series of blogs to keep people informed on current election reform and voting rights issues in the news.

Featured Story of the Week:
Voter Purging: A Legal Way for Republicans to Swing Elections? - AlterNet

Justice Department wants court hearing on Alabama voting system – Associated Press, WAFF.com

“To me, it's a very clear view of the Republican agenda, said former [Department of Justice Civil Rights Division] Voting Section Chief, Joe Rich. “The GOP agenda is to make it harder to vote. You purge voters. You don't register voters. This is ripe for partisan decision making. You pick the states where you go after Democrats.”

“They want more people showing up on Election Day and not finding their names. They want people not voting,”said David Becker, People for the American Way Foundation's senior voting rights counsel and former Voting Section attorney. “This stuff disenfranchises voters.”

These strong quotes were reported by Alternet Senior Fellow Steven Rosenfeld in his story regarding pressure from the Justice Department on 10 states to purge their voter rolls in advance of the 2008 elections. In the name of combating so-called “voter fraud” (see here for a Project Vote report on its non-existence) and possibly affecting thousands of voters, “Alternet found that some states facing Justice Department pressure to purge voters have long been targeted by GOP 'vote fraud' activists, especially where concentrations of minority voters have historically elected Democrats...”

“Looking toward the 2008 election, it appears the purges could be a new and legal way to accomplish a controversial longstanding Republican Party electoral tactic – thinning the ranks of likely Democratic voters in states where there may be close race,” Rosenfeld wrote.

In accordance with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 and the Help America Vote Act of 2002, states are required to periodically remove ineligible voters from the statewide official voter list. States are responsible for developing specific standards for implementing a list maintenance program that is transparent, consistent and non-discriminatory.

Earlier this year, Voting Section Chief John Tanner sent “identical letters” to the Iowa, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, Utah and Vermont, notifying them that 10% or more of their election jurisdictions have more registered voters than citizen voting age population. The letter then requested that states report “'the subsequent removal from rolls of persons no longer eligible to vote.'” For further information on one state's handling of Tanner's request, see this June Project Vote blog, including a link to Tanner's letter to the NC State Board of Elections and executive director Gary Bartlett's response to the Justice Dept.

The Justice Dept. assessed state voter rolls based on a 2004 report on NVRA by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, an analysis that former Voting Section attorneys and experts consider flawed.

“You are basically seeing them grasping at whatever straws are possible to make their point,” said Kim Brace, a consultant who helped the EAC prepare the 2004 NVRA report cited by the Voting Section letter. “The 'total voter registration numbers' in Tanner's letter combined active and inactive registrations, Brace said, creating an inflated number for total registrations. In contrast, he said the 'citizen voting-age population' was a mid-decade census estimate and a smaller measure.'”

Using the same methodology “cited in Tanner's letters,” AlterNet attempted to identify states with “swollen voter rolls” that needed to be purged. Eighteen states were found to allegedly have at least 10% of their jurisdictions claiming more registered voters than eligible, voting-age citizens. AlterNet noted that many states had outdated rolls, especially in rural counties where registered voters have moved, died, or felony convictions and needed to be removed under federal law. “However, AlterNet found that some states facing Justice Department pressure to purge voters have long been targeted by GOP 'vote fraud' activists, especially where concentrations of minority voters have historically elected democrats.” The provocateur includes prominent Republican voter fraud activist, Hans Von Spakovsky, who “started the department's purge effort in January 2005 when he was a political appointee overseeing the Voting Section's legal agenda.”

“Unlike most of the 'voter fraud' cases cited by GOP activists, where a handful of registrations – usually in the single digits – from big voter registration drives are found to be erroneous, purges can affect thousands of voters,” and thus, determine close elections, Rosenfeld wrote. “In Florida and Missouri in 2000, a total of 100,000 legal voters were incorrectly removed, according to academics and local election officials.”

Experts estimate that 1/4 to 1/2 of inactive voters still have valid registrations and have either not received or responded to the mailing from elections offices, verifying their status as voters. Reasons for non-response range from clerical errors in names and addresses to improperly delivered mail. “Moreover, low-income people often are transient and hard to reach,” Rosenfeld wrote. Low income mobility rates are greater than that of the affluent. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 37% of people earning less than $15,000 per year moved between 2000 and 2005, compared to about 35% of those earning $100,000 or more. An even greater mobility rate exists among people of color, who are over-represented in low income populations and thus, are more likely to be removed from the rolls than whites. Nearly half of Latinos (49%) and 41% of Blacks changed residency between 2000 and 2005 compared to 38% of whites.

“It's a misnomer to call them inactive,” said Daniel Ivey-Soto, New Mexico's director of elections. More than 18% of the database is inactive at any time, half of which are actually active voters, he said.

Former Voting Section lawyers also question the DOJ's timing because states have been coming into compliance with HAVA’s database regulations at differing paces. For example, Alabama's governor recently asked for more time to develop a statewide, computerized voter registration database. In response, the Justice Dept. requested to hear why the state is missing its already extended August deadline, according to the Associated Press on Tuesday.

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