WASHINGTON — The fiercest shouting match of this campaign season isn’t necessarily “vote for Obama!” versus “vote for McCain!”
In some states, it is “voter fraud!” versus “voter intimidation!”
Republicans allege Democrats and their allies are trying to subvert the voter registration system, and perhaps the election itself, with an avalanche of inaccurate or fraudulent new voter registrations.
But Democrats charge Republicans are trying to deter would-be voters by discouraging registrations and by requiring voters to identify themselves, in some cases with state-issued photo identification such as a driver’s license.
In one sense, this is simply the intense political combat one would expect to see three weeks before an election, with each side using an issue to fire up its loyal supporters.
But some election officials are struggling with substantial problems as they try to avoid a fiasco on Election Day, Nov. 4.
Republicans have made a group called ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, the chief villain in the home stretch of the campaign.
Their allegation: that ACORN has been flooding election officials in states from Nevada to Connecticut with thousands of erroneous and fraudulent voter registration forms.
In Jackson County, Missouri, (which includes Kansas City) election officials said this week that fraudulent registration forms had been handed in by ACORN canvassers.
Nevada raid on ACORN
In Las Vegas, investigators from the office of Nevada Secretary of State Ross Miller, a Democrat, served a search warrant Tuesday on the ACORN office, as part of an investigation into allegations of voter registration fraud. Miller’s agents seized computer hard drives and boxes of documents.
Video: Hardball ACORN defended itself in the Nevada incident, saying its workers verify the information on new voter registration cards before turning them in to election officials.
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But ACORN did acknowledge that some errors were made.
“While the vast majority of our voter registration canvassers do a great job, there have been several times over the past ten months that our Las Vegas Quality Control program has identified a canvasser who appears to have knowingly submitted a fake or duplicate application in order to pad his or her hours,” the group said in a statement.
It complained that “It was surprising that law enforcement officials appeared suddenly at our Las Vegas offices yesterday, because ACORN and its attorneys have already been proactive in providing information about problematic cards and any employee suspected of misconduct.”
President Bush won Nevada in 2004, but recent polls show Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain statistically tied in the state with his Democratic rival Sen. Barack Obama.
Obama ties to ACORN
Obama has long had ties to ACORN. In 1995, he was one of the attorneys who represented the group in a suit against the state of Illinois for not implementing the federal "Motor Voter" law which makes it easier for people to register as voters. And the ACORN political action committee has endorsed Obama.
Campaigning in Mosinee, Wisc., on Thursday, McCain responded to shouts of “ACORN!” in the crowd by saying, “There are serious allegations of voter fraud in the battleground states across America…. You’ve seen these are serious allegations, my friends, and they must be investigated, and they must be investigated immediately, and they must be stopped before November the 4th so Americans will not be deprived of a fair process in this election.”
Decision 08 DashboardThe co-chairman of the McCain advisory team in charge of monitoring alleged voter fraud, former Missouri Sen. John Danforth, hinted this week at potential post-Nov. 4 litigation if Obama wins due to suspect voters who had been registered by ACORN. “The contest could go on for a very long time,” he told reporters.
Danforth also said it would be “a nightmare in America” and “a total horror story” if Obama either wins or loses by a small margin “and the losing side believes it has been cheated.”
Offering a professional election official's view of last-minute “dumps” of new registration applications by groups such as ACORN was Doug Lewis, the executive director of the nonpartisan National Association of Election Officials, who testified before the House Judiciary Committee last month.
'It just screws up the system'
“This unfettered, unbounded, unregulated use of third-party registrations, where they sit on those registrations right until the end and try to turn them all in at the very last minute — it just screws up the system,” Lewis told the committee. “It disenfranchises voters. It's one of those things that just is frustrating to us as elections officials.”
Video: Youth view Lewis added that in his years as an election official he has seen both Democrats and Republicans “dumping in” new voter registration cards at the last minute before a state’s voter registration deadline. “The problem is that these groups all think that they're going to surprise the other campaign with how many people they've registered.”
This week the controversy reached as far as the usually non-political offices of the Social Security Administration.
The National Association of Secretaries of State (NASS) which represents most of the chief election officials in the states, urged Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue to postpone this weekend’s scheduled shutdown of his agency’s database, which most states use to verify new would-be voters’ names and identities.
MySpace-msnbc.com Decision '08State officials use the Social Security database when they cannot verify voters’ identity with drivers’ licenses or other state-issued identification cards.
The database shutdown is an annual event, done for maintenance.
In its letter to Astrue, NASS said that most states have voter registration deadlines “that fall a week before, the week of, or the week after the scheduled Computer Center shutdown. Holding all of these verifications until the system comes back online on October 13, 2008 could result in a tremendous surge of data.”
For his part, Astrue accused his critics of partisan motives: “I regret that people unfamiliar with the facts of this situation have sought to create a partisan issue where there is none.”
State officials have been reporting to NASS this week that there has been a slowdown in the Social Security database, which could create delays in verifying voter registrations.
The issues of registration and voting are sensitive in part due to the history of intimidation of black people seeking to register and vote, especially in the South, which led to the enactment of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and the senior African-American member of Congress, said, “It’s pretty clear. You’ve got a black candidate for president for the first time. Do you think that the usual attempts to suppress voting among minorities are going to go down and not up? Of course not.”
Furor over fired federal prosecutors
Democrats charge that the Bush administration went to extraordinary and perhaps illegal lengths to pursue voter fraud allegations.
Last month, a report from the Justice Department's inspector general and Office of Professional Responsibility found that former attorney general Alberto Gonzales fired the United States attorney in New Mexico, David Iglesias, in December of 2006 after top Republicans in the state complained that Iglesias hadn’t aggressively pursued voter-fraud cases after the 2004 election.
It was the ACORN issue that partly led to Iglesias being fired.
Patrick Rogers, a New Mexico Republican activist, complained in a March 2006 e-mail to a Justice Department official that Iglesias and his assistant "were not much help during the ACORN fraudulent registration debacle" in the 2004 election when the group was accused of submitting fraudulent registrations in the state.
That same motive — insufficient zeal in prosecuting alleged vote fraud — may have played a role in the firing of the United States attorney in Seattle, John McKay.
But Republicans say the U.S. attorneys controversy doesn’t undercut their fundamental contention: Voter fraud has occurred and may occur again this year.
While Republicans accuse Democrats of benefiting from voter fraud, Democrats fire back that Republicans are trying to suppress the Democratic vote by too stringent rules on voter identification.
Photo ID requirement 'an abomination'?
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said a Georgia law that required residents to show photo identification when voting in person was “an abomination.”
In Georgia, Schumer’s DSCC is backing Democrat Jim Martin’s challenge to Republican incumbent Sen. Saxby Chambliss as the Democrats aim for a filibuster-proof 60-seat Senate majority .
“Photo ID laws in other states, which we don’t have, are barriers to senior citizens voting,” said Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a Democrat. “There’s no support for that idea among election officials and people in Minnesota…. I think generally it is agreed that photo ID laws are designed to prevent some people from voting whether it’s senior citizens or others.”
But Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita, a Republican, defended his state’s photo ID requirement. “The law was very narrowly crafted and well tailored,” Rokita said.
The law was upheld in a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court last January. “Not only is the risk of voter fraud real,” wrote Justice John Paul Stevens in the majority opinion, but “it could affect the outcome of a close election.”
Under Indiana law, a person without a photo ID can cast a provisional ballot, and then has up to ten days after Election Day to get a free state-issued photo ID from a local office of the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles.
Caught in the middle of the partisan warfare over voting are the local officials who in just three weeks will have the job of administering elections across the nation.
“We are at the point where we have had so many allegations made about the process, that I'm not sure we're not doing permanent damage to the process,” Lewis testified last month. “We've got to get to the point where we understand the process is more important than partisanship.”
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