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Mickey Mouse Operation

Making sense of the confusing, contentious "problem" of voter fraud.

We were supposed to be beyond this. In 2000, George W. Bush’s freakishly thin margin of victory over Al Gore once more thrust the twin problems of voter access and voter legitimacy into the national spotlight. The Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002 was meant to establish uniform, upgraded standards for registration and voting--but, this year, a new wave of conflicts over residency requirements, citizenship requirements, and legal cases invoking the Republican chestnut of “voter fraud” suggest that the issues that brought us the long national nightmare of the Florida recount won’t die easily.

Voter Residency

Determining voter residency has been a primary source of discord. Ordinarily inconsistent voter registration requirements have become even more confusing following the screwball pitch of the home foreclosure crisis--which had a disproportionate impact on swing states. “The same communities that might be the target of predatory lending practices are likely to be targeted for vote suppression,” said Wendy Weiser, deputy director for democracy at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law School. “That’s where there are newer voters or people with lower incomes who are the first to be hit by the foreclosure crisis.” In Michigan, for example, a July blitz of foreclosure notices was sent to 11,000 residents of Macomb County, a crucial swing district. Voters who had fallen behind on their mortgage payments faced eviction and therefore loss of an address from which to vote. Michigan law protects these citizens for 60 days prior to the election, but the swarm of letters arrived just outside that window. The state Republican Party chairman, James Carabelli, soon threatened these individuals with ineligibility, announcing that it would monitor polls on Election Day, using foreclosure rolls as a type of hit list--a technique known as “caging.”

These voters have legal cover: Foreclosure alone “is not an indicator” that the state can use to deny someone the right to vote, says Weiser. But the Detroit Free Press continues to report “persistent rumors” that citizens who lost their houses through foreclosure won’t be allowed to vote.

Residency requirements have also affected students across the country. Virginia Tech students were recently told (incorrectly) they might lose residency-based scholarships, or their status as dependents if they registered as students in the state. During the primary season, a group issued an improper blanket challenge to about 900 students in Georgia and the Republican party of Montana has just mounted a similar challenge to 6,000 registrations from individuals based on strict residency requirements in that state. Subsequent purges could also affect servicepeople who had mail forwarded to Iraq and other overseas military posts.

 Proof of Citizenship

The shifting demographics of the American Southwest have yoked the issue of who votes to the tense politics of immigration. “I think that there’s a lot of fear and trepidation about these changes,” says Nina Perales, southwest regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Racialized prosecution, Spanish-language intimidation, and misinformation at polling stations have been widely documented: In Orange Country, California, for example, letters were sent to Latinos declaring (incorrectly) that even legal immigrants weren’t allowed to vote; in Fort Worth, Texas in 2007, an official-looking placard written in Spanish and English sent readers to voting booths on a Saturday.

But a more complex and insidious line of voter exclusion relates to ID laws. States like Arizona, which in 2004 required a birth certificate, passport, or naturalization card to register, justify those requirements as a curb against voter fraud. But what this frequently means on the ground is that the restrictions accidentally knock Hispanic citizens off the voter rolls--or make sure they’re too intimidated to vote, even if they’re allowed to. Speaking at a panel sponsored by the American Constitution Society, Perales described a recent situation in Arizona, where new regulations resulted in the rejection of 31,000 voters, of which only one-third were eventually cleared to vote. Targeted, ID-related purges often result in voter attrition; those who have registered and been rejected for inadequate documentation are less likely to make the effort again. Whether those 31,000 would-be Arizonan voters were citizens or undocumented immigrants, 20,000 individuals didn’t bother to reapply.

Allegations of Voter Fraud

Reports suggest that, in a dozen key swing states this year, there are about 1.5 million more Democrats registered than in 2004--and 60,000 fewer Republicans. So it’s not surprising that, while pleas for lenience and accessibility come from the ground-game obsessives in the Democratic Party, efforts to trim the rolls have been launched by the GOP. Late last week, in response to a McCain campaign suit, a federal appeals court ordered the Democratic Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner to "provide access to a state database showing new voters whose registration information does not match” state DMV or Social Security records. Inspectors would search for inconsistencies of any kind, potentially unregistering up to 200,000 voters, who would then be forced to cast provisional ballots (a stopgap remedy that surged in use after HAVA passed). Brunner contested the utility of this requirement, as a large percentage of the purges completed to date in Ohio are a result of simple typos (as with the newly famous “Joe the Plumber,” whose name was misspelled on a registration list in Toledo). The Supreme Court recently declined to hear the appeal, effectively siding with Brunner.

Add this tale to the boiling pot that is ACORN, the nonprofit community organizing group with ties to Barack Obama. ACORN, which claims to have registered 1.3 million people this election cycle, is under federal investigation in Ohio and at least eight other states. Hundreds of ACORN names were improperly documented by workers paid to collect signatures--ranging from typos to the strange case of a man registering 72 times over a year and a half. The Republican National Committee has denounced ACORN for careless work and launched ACORN-themed attacks on candidates up and down the ballot. In Wednesday’s final presidential debate, John McCain described the pay-for-names registration tactics as “destroying the fabric of democracy.” (Neither campaign responded to requests for comment.) But ACORN is required by law to pass along all signatures to state officials, even ones that are obviously duplicates, so the argument that they’re manufacturing them seems spurious. And, of course, that man who registered 72 times will have a good deal of trouble actually showing up to vote more than once. Registration fraud--providing a misspelled or incorrect name or address on a voting card--is far easier to pull off than voter fraud--showing up to vote multiple times on Election Day.

But even voter fraud may not be the earth-shattering calamity that the Republicans have made it out to be. Weiser points out that only 38 cases of individual voter fraud have been litigated between 2002 and 2005--suggesting that this longtime Republican complaint is more bluster than anything else.

Dayo Olopade is a political reporter for The Root.