Posted on Wed, Sep. 26, 2007
Ohio, Florida laws could dampen Democratic voting Greg Gordon | McClatchy
last updated: September 26, 2007 07:19:57 PM
WASHINGTON — Ohio and Florida, which provided the decisive electoral votes
for President Bush's two razor-thin national election triumphs, have enacted
laws that election experts say will help Republicans impede
Democratic-leaning minorities from voting in 2008.
Backers of the new laws say they're aimed at curbing vote fraud. But the
statutes also could facilitate a controversial Republican tactic known as
``vote caging,'' which the GOP attempted in Ohio and Florida in 2004 before
public disclosures foiled the efforts, said Joseph Rich, a former Justice
Department voting rights chief in the Bush administration who's now with the
Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.
Caging, used in the past to target poor minorities in heavily Democratic
precincts, entails sending mass mailings to certain voters and then using
the undelivered letters to compile lists of voters for eligibility
As the high-stakes ground war escalates heading into next year's elections,
Republicans have led the charge for an array of revisions to state voting
rights laws, especially in key battleground states. Republican political
appointees in the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division have endorsed
some of these measures.
Over the last three years, the Republican-controlled state legislatures in
Indiana, Georgia, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have passed laws
requiring every voter to produce a photo identification card — measures that
civil rights groups contend were aimed at suppressing minority voting.
The Supreme Court agreed Tuesday to consider a constitutional challenge to
Indiana's ID law on grounds that it unfairly affects poor and elderly
voters. Gubernatorial vetoes or court rulings have nullified legislation in
the other four states. A federal judge in Georgia, however, recently upheld
a new photo ID law that imposes fewer obstacles to obtaining one.
In Ohio, which swung the 2004 election to Bush, new Democratic Secretary of
State Jennifer Brunner said in a phone interview that an election law passed
last year and signed by former Republican Gov. Bob Taft effectively
``institutionalized'' vote caging.
The law requires that the state's 88 county election boards send
non-forwardable, pre-election notices to all 7.8 million registered Ohio
voters at least 60 days before the election. Undelivered letters are public
record, she said, meaning that effectively, ``now the counties are paying
for'' the data needed to compile challenge lists.
In addition, Brunner said, the law toughened voter ID requirements and
``took away rights of some voters to be heard about whether or not their
registration was valid.''
In the past, Ohio voters were entitled to an official notice and a hearing
before an election board could declare them ineligible, but the new law says
that the board can make that decision without notice. A disqualified voter
who shows up at the polls must demonstrate that he's fixed any eligibility
problem or opt for filing a provisional ballot that may not count.
Brunner said the new law has left her feeling ``like being in a sword fight
with one hand behind your back.'' She said she's sought, ``while working
within the framework of preventing fraud,'' to make it ``as easy as possible
for people who are eligible to participate.''
``We feel the eyes of the nation are on us, no matter what we do,'' Brunner
A 2005 Florida law, approved by the Justice Department under the Voting
Rights Act, stripped the state's 10.5 million registered voters of the right
to contest challenges at the polls. Now a challenger need only swear to a
"good faith belief" that a voter is ineligible to force the voter to file a
At the same time, the law reduces from three days to 48 hours the deadline
for challenged voters to produce evidence that they're eligible to vote in
Another Florida law imposed a $250 penalty on voter registration workers for
every registration application they fail to turn over to county registrars
within 10 days. After the League of Women Voters sued and a judge blocked
its implementation, the legislature cut the fine to $50 per infraction.
Sterling Ivey, a spokesman for Florida Republican Secretary of State Kurt
Browning, said there has been no sign of a large caging operation.
"We don't see a significant number of challenges of voters in Florida,'' he
But former voting rights chief Rich said Ohio's and Florida's new laws
``make one wonder whether there will be new efforts to have massive
challenges in the future.''
A federal court injunction has barred the Republican National Committee for
25 years from engaging in racially targeted vote caging, but it doesn't
extend to state parties.
Asked whether they might employ vote caging in 2008, Executive Director
Jason Mauk of the Ohio Republican Party and spokeswoman Erin VanSickle of
the Florida Republican Party said they couldn't discuss election strategy.
Chandler Davidson, a Rice University sociology professor who has studied
voter suppression, said the new laws are questionable because ``there has
been virtually no evidence presented that there has been wide-scale voter
fraud in the United States.''
Pointing to a Yale University study showing that mail is less likely to
reach residents of low-income neighborhoods, he said mass mailings of
non-forwardable mail will ``discriminate in a pretty straightforward way''
against poor people and minorities.
A study to be released Thursday by the liberal-leaning group Project Vote
noted that Minnesota — with bipartisan support — altered its election law in
The law prohibits political parties from bringing in challengers from out of
state and from using non-forwardable mail to compile challenge lists.
``The fundamental question,'' said Democratic Secretary of State Mark
Ritchie, ``is do you want to make sure everyone can vote, or do you want to
make sure some people can vote and other people have a harder time voting?''
McClatchy Newspapers 2007