Wisconsin Officials Fight Over Voter Registrations

Wisconsin's Attorney General has sued the state election's board, accusing it of failing to act to prevent voter fraud. He wants to force the state to use a new database to check the voter identification of those who have registered since January of 2006, reports Wisconsin Public Radio's Shawn Johnson. The lawsuit could cast doubt on election results in a swing state that was decided by a combined 17,000 votes in the past two presidential contests.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. We turn now to the voting process in the upcoming presidential election. In the swing state of Wisconsin, a place where the past two presidential elections have been decided on a close margin, the state's attorney general is raising concerns about voter fraud. Shawn Johnson from Wisconsin Public Radio reports.

SHAWN JOHNSON: This is not the first time Republicans have challenged the registration rolls in Wisconsin. What's different this year is that for the first time since the early '90s, a member of their party is the state's top law enforcement official. Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen is also the Wisconsin co-chair of John McCain's presidential campaign. But Van Hollen argues that none of that matters in this case.

Attorney General J.B. VAN HOLLEN (Wisconsin): I can't imagine what's partisan about asking for fair elections, about doing what we can to reduce, if not eliminate, voter fraud.

JOHNSON: Van Hollen is suing the state, alleging it's not following the federal Help America Vote Act that Congress passed following the 2000 Florida election debacle. One of the requirements is that states set up databases to keep track of voters' information to make sure it's accurate. Wisconsin didn't get its database up and running until last month, and since then clerks have been using it to check new voter registrations. But Van Hollen contends the state needs to go back and check all those who've registered since the law took effect in January of 2006.

Attorney General VAN HOLLEN: And we have a government agency who's basically saying, no, we won't do it. And I think we set a real poor example when we go after ordinary citizens who violate the law, yet we let government agencies substitute their judgment for the law.

JOHNSON: But here's the thing. Wisconsin's voter database is still going through some significant growing pains. It's finding a lot of mistakes, and they don't necessarily point to voter fraud. Maribeth Witzel-Behl is the Madison city clerk. She says most of the mismatches her office has found so far are a result of bad penmanship and clerical errors.

Ms. MARIBETH WITZEL-BEHL (City Clerk, Madison, Wisconsin): If somebody has a space in their last name, or if they had poor handwriting, and we couldn't decipher what they had written down for their driver's license number, that comes back as not a match.

JOHNSON: Statewide, more than one out every five registration forms has had some kind of error. Even some of the retired judges who sit on the elections board got snagged by the system. Four out of six board members had some discrepancy on their voter registrations. Elections officials say they don't have the time or the manpower to correct all those mistakes by November 4, and Van Hollen's request could potentially disenfranchise lots of legitimate voters. The state Democratic Party says that's why it's fighting the lawsuit, one that party chair Joe Wineke sees as a ploy to suppress voter turnout.

Mr. JOE WINEKE (Chairman, Wisconsin Democratic Party): We just know that if they're going to have like a million people that they're going to potentially try to challenge, they're just going to try and slow the vote down so people get so frustrated they go home.

JOHNSON: Wineke says the attorney general should drop this case because he has a conflict of interest. But Van Hollen says there's no conflict. He points out that in Wisconsin, people who get flagged by the system can still re-register at the polls on Election Day. They can also cast a provisional ballot and then come back to their local clerk with proof of their residence the day after the election. But elections expert Daniel Tokaji of Ohio State University School of Law says there's a downside to that.

Professor DANIEL TOKAJI (Law, Moritz College of Law, Ohio State University): If you've got a lot of provisional ballots, what you have is a lot of things for the parties to fight over in the event of a close-contested election.

JOHNSON: Wisconsin's last two presidential elections have been very close. John Kerry won by around 11,000 votes in 2004. Al Gore carried the state by fewer than 6,000 votes. Tokaji says federal law does not require that you penalize voters for problems a state is having with its database. What's more, he says, it doesn't allow it. He calls Van Hollen's lawsuit extremely unusual, and says it could conceivably set up Wisconsin as the next Florida. For NPR News, I'm Shawn Johnson in Madison.

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