Battle Continues On Who Can Vote, And How

A Pennsylvania judge Tuesday blocked the state from moving forward with changes to its voter ID law until after the presidential election. This news comes just days after some suspicious voter registration activity in states like Florida, North Carolina and Nevada. Host Michel Martin discusses voter issues across the country with two reporters.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. I'd like to thank my colleague, Celeste Headlee, for sitting in for me while I was away after a death in my family. And thanks also to the TELL ME MORE staff for their extraordinary work during this challenging period.

And not a moment too soon, we'll head to the Beauty Shop later today. That's where our panel of women commentators give us a fresh cut on the news. That's a little later.

But first, we are revisiting a topic that we've touched on often this year, the issue of who can vote and how this election season. There have been important new developments. A controversial new law that placed new demands on voters to get and produce IDs in order to vote in Pennsylvania was put on hold. A state court judge said there was not enough time to ensure that eligible voters would not be disenfranchised. And that came after stories about suspicious voter registration forms popped up in Florida, and not from the people you might think.

We wanted to find out more about both of these stories, so we've called Bob Warner. He's the city hall reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He's been following the voter ID story there. Also joining us is Matea Gold. She covers politics in the Washington bureau of the Los Angeles Times.

Welcome to both of you. Thanks for joining us.

MATEA GOLD: Great to be here.

BOB WARNER: Me, too. Thanks.

MARTIN: So let's start with Pennsylvania. Bob, the judge there said that Pennsylvania can't implement its new voter ID law until after the election. Now, Democrats have been arguing vociferously this very point, that this would disenfranchise voters. What seems to have persuaded the judge?

WARNER: Well, the main issue was the number of people who had managed to obtain a special form of voter ID that the state of Pennsylvania created for this purpose. The lowest estimate for how many voters would be required to get new ID was about 80,000. And in the six months since the law was passed, just 10,000 or 11,000 have managed to take advantage of this new, easier-to-get ID.

MARTIN: And do I have it right that the deadline for registering to vote is upon us? Isn't that true?

WARNER: Next week, October 9th.

MARTIN: It looks, though, from the opinion, that the judge didn't necessarily oppose, on constitutional grounds, requiring the ID. Do I have that right?

WARNER: That's still an open question. This particular judge - it was just a motion for a preliminary injunction, so he didn't reach any final decisions on the issue.

MARTIN: So how is it going to work now? What's going to happen when voters try to vote this November? What's going to happen? What does this...

WARNER: Well, they'll be asked for a specified form of voter ID when they show up at the polls on November 6th, but whether they have it or not, they'll be allowed to go ahead and vote on voting machines.

MARTIN: Bob, I'm going to ask you to stand by. We're going to come back to you. But first, we want to go to Florida. Matea, there have been reports of suspicious activity involving voter registration forms there, all revolving around one organization. What can you tell us about that?

GOLD: Yeah. So this story has gotten a lot of attention, and has also been somewhat of an embarrassment for the Republican National Committee. They contracted a firm to do voter registration and voter outreach in seven swing states. And this firm was registering voters in Florida and, apparently, at least one of its workers in Palm Beach County turned in forms that seemed fairly suspicious to the election supervisor there. And then, over the last week, we've heard reports cropping up in 10 other counties in Florida of possibly fraudulent voter registration forms turned in on behalf of the state Republican Party.

And this has not been an issue, I think, that anyone in the Republican Party down there really has welcomed in any way. I mean, they have been the forefront of pushing for stricter rules to crack down on groups that do voter registration. And, in fact, in one of the great ironies of this story, the only reason that officials were able to figure out who had submitted these forms was because Republicans had pushed for a special ID number to be assigned to third party groups when they register voters.

And in this case, all of these questionable forms have traced back to the Republican Party itself. The national party has severed ties with this firm, and the states themselves have fired the company. But it's already created quite a black eye for their operations.

MARTIN: Tell us a little bit more, if you would, why this is a particular problem for the Republicans. I know that you mentioned that, not just in Florida, but in other states that have been pushing for these tougher regulations around voter registration and demanding IDs, it's generally been Republicans driving it. But what in this particular case traces this back to the Republican Party? Is it because this firm was working for the Republicans, or were they only trying to register Republicans?

GOLD: Correct. So the issue is that this firm was working specifically for the Republicans. I mean, it was a firm that actually is run by a longtime GOP operative based out of Arizona whose work has also been dogged by a lot of charges back in 2004 that he was only registering Republicans. There were accusations that his employees were ripping up the registration of Democrats.

So there were a lot of allegations that have swirled around this particular consultant, whose name is Nathan Sproul. None of those charges ever were proven. No law enforcement ever brought actual charges filed against him, but his reputation is enough that the Republican Party apparently felt so concerned about hiring him to do this kind of work this year that they requested that he set up kind of a front company so his name would not be connected.

And so he registered a company in Virginia with a corporation agent, and his name was not on the corporate paperwork. And it really took some digging by, actually, a liberal blogger down in North Carolina who first made the connection between him and this company. And then once these allegations came out that the company was submitting fraudulent forms, there's kind of been a whole new level of scrutiny into his relationship with the Republican Party.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking about some of the voter ID and voter registration issues that have popped up recently. There have been new developments in stories. This is an ongoing story in this very closely contested election year.

Matea, one other reasons that this is getting a lot of attention is, you know, there is the merits, but there's also the politics to which you just referred, because, as we said, Republicans have been driving these new requirements in most locations. How does this particular set of allegations compare to the kinds of things that Republicans have been accusing Democrats and progressive groups of doing? Is it the same kind of allegation?

GOLD: One of the things that Democrats were very quick to jump on was to point out that ACORN - which was the subject of most of the criticism by Conservatives and Republicans, a group that no longer exists, has kind of been disbanded in the wake of a lot of scrutiny into its practices...

MARTIN: It's an anti-poverty advocacy group.

GOLD: Exactly.

MARTIN: They did - this is one of the things they did, not all that they did.

GOLD: Right.

MARTIN: But an anti-poverty group called ACORN, dates back to the '60s.

GOLD: Right. And ACORN never actually was even working directly for the Democrats. So the Democrats have been - you know, see a great opening here to press their case that Republicans are hypocrites in this area.

You know, one of the interesting things about what was happening in Florida that I think is really important to note, some of the accusations against ACORN were that they were kind of making up fictional characters or fictional people just to kind of drive up their number of cards and make more money.

In this case, election supervisors told us that it appeared someone was going through an actual list of voters - it was probably about four years old - submitting them again as a change of registration with new addresses, new dates of birth, and that could actually make it harder for those voters to actually cast their ballots on Election Day if they - Florida is a voter ID state. It has been for a long time.

If they showed up at the polls with their actual ID and someone had reregistered them at a different address, they could possibly have to vote a provisional ballot, which would then be subject to some scrutiny about whether they were actually - had a right to vote in that precinct. It could lead to a long delay. So there is a potential for voter disenfranchisement with what was happening down in Florida.

MARTIN: It's like identity theft. It's identity theft.

GOLD: Right.

MARTIN: But is there any evidence that that was the intention? The intention was to make it harder for people to vote.

GOLD: We have no evidence that that was the case. You know, some of this - election supervisors thought that it appeared that this was the work of, you know, just isolated workers who were just trying to get more money. Now, our sister paper, the Sun Sentinel, actually tracked down one of the workers in question, who insisted he didn't forge any documents. And, in fact, he said he was only paid by the hour, not by the card. So he wouldn't have had an incentive to create false registration cards.

MARTIN: So, Matea, I want you to stand by, because I want to ask the, sort of, the broader question here. As we said, that this whole question of voter ID has been kind of locked into a partisan framework at this juncture, and I'm interested to know whether this has changed that dynamic at all.

So, Bob, I'm going to go back to you now and ask you: What reaction has there been to the judge's decision in this case? As we said, this has become very partisan. Republicans have been insisting that these new IDs or these new laws are needed to prevent fraud. Democrats are saying that the intention is to keep certain people from voting who are more likely to vote for Democrats.

Has the judge's decision - how has it been received by both parties?

WARNER: Well, along totally partisan lines. Democrats have been jubilant. The Republicans say they're disappointed. They keep saying that the judge has upheld the constitutionality of the law - which really hasn't been done in any sort of final fashion - and any finding that the judge makes will be probably reviewed by the state Supreme Court after he makes a decision.

MARTIN: Are the Democrats disappointed, though, that this is really a temporary measure, saying that there just isn't time to see if the law can be properly implemented? Are they expressing disappointment with that, that the merits don't seem to have been addressed yet?

WARNER: They've been addressed by the judge who made the original decision in a positive fashion. That is, he did suggest that the Republicans would be likely to prevail on the merits. But that part of the decision hasn't really been reviewed by the state Supreme Court.

MARTIN: Matea, a similar question to you, which is: Has this changed the partisan dynamic around this conversation at all in Washington? Because the Republicans have been insisting that these new laws are needed to counteract fraud. Could they not now argue that, in fact, it's done so, letting the chips fall where they may, that this new requirement that these groups be registered or be known...

GOLD: Right, right.

MARTIN: ...in fact, is what led to this outcome?

GOLD: Right.

MARTIN: Or is it still - or is it just too close, and are the facts still too fresh?

GOLD: Well, you know, I don't think anyone's taking a measured response right now. I mean, the Republicans are feeling very defensive about this, as you can imagine. The Democrats are feeling rather gleeful about it. You know, I think they're probably - this incident gives ammunition to both sides.

It's true this tracker ID did lead to the discovery of potentially suspicious voter registration forms. So I'm sure that's something that people will praise. But there's such a climate of anxiety about this issue right now that I think, whether or not there are new laws in place in states on Election Day, I think voters themselves have probably become very aware that there is this question about their right to vote that I think we will see play out on Election Day in interesting ways.

WARNER: Well, I could add: I think there are clear political consequences in terms of the energy that has developed around this voter ID issue. It's really been the strongest organizing tool for Democrats around the state. And, again, I think we'll see the effect of that on Election Day, a lot of excitement about it, a lot of, you know, 90-year-old women who are just so outraged that they're organizing their neighbors and are really prepared to come out and vote on November 6th.

MARTIN: That was Bob Warner. He's a city hall reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He was with us from Philadelphia. Also with us, Matea Gold. She's a Washington bureau reporter for the Los Angeles Times, and she was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Thank you both so much for joining us.

GOLD: Thank you so much.

WARNER: Thank you.

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