ALEX COHEN, host:
We turn now to politics in this country. Barack Obama's campaign is depending on thousands of new Democratic voters to go to the polls in November. Little surprise then that Republicans are taking a close look at those new registrants to make sure they're all eligible to vote.
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
Both sides do expect disputes over voter registration in some key states, including Pennsylvania. From Philadelphia, Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE: The frontline of the Democratic voter registration effort is in nondescript parking lots like this one, in front of the social security office in Norristown, Pennsylvania about 15 miles west of Philadelphia. For the last month, this is where volunteer Rita Hinick (ph) has been coming to look for new and unregistered voters.
Ms. RITA HINICK (Political Volunteer, Democrat): Hi, sir, how you doing? Are you registered to vote at your current address?
ROSE: The job isn't easy. Sometimes Hinick will go hours without signing up anyone. She says it's especially tough convincing young men to register, although she has come up with a few tricks.
Ms. HINICK: For whatever reason, a lot of young men under 20, 22 don't seem to be interested, whereas if they're with a girlfriend - a mother, they're the best.
ROSE: So when she spots Brandon Reynolds (ph) and his mother in a white minivan, Hineck immediately asks mom if her son is signed up to vote. A minute later, Hinick is helping Reynolds fill out the registration form.
Ms. HINICK: Mr. Brandon Reynolds, and you were born in 1990. You were never registered before? OK.
ROSE: And you registered Democrat?
Mr. BRANDON REYNOLDS (Pennsylvania Resident): Yes.
ROSE: How come?
Mr. REYNOLDS: Because I want Barack Obama to win.
ROSE: First-time voters like Reynolds and party-switchers are crucial to the Obama campaign's strategy in Pennsylvania. In the Philadelphia suburbs alone, more than 140,000 new Democrats registered to vote in the state's hotly contested presidential primary, in some cases tipping the balance of power in counties the GOP had dominated for generations, and state Republicans are not taking this lying down.
Mr. LAWRENCE TABAS (General Counsel, Republican Party of Pennsylvania): When you get a large number of registrations like this, the resources and the personnel availability at these county boards of election get very strained in their ability to be able to review them all and make a determination as to whether or not they're valid.
ROSE: Lawrence Tabas is general counsel for the Republican Party of Pennsylvania. He says the party will be on the lookout for fraudulent registrations, especially from so-called third-party advocacy groups such as ACORN, which has been accused of widespread vote fraud in past elections.
Mr. TABAS: These groups know the system and its weaknesses, and they take advantage of it.
ROSE: ACORN denies the allegations. For their part, Democrats are preparing to defend a registration advantage in Pennsylvania that has swelled to more than one million state-wide. Sean Smith is a spokesman for the Obama campaign.
Mr. SEAN SMITH (Spokesman, Obama Campaign): We know that the voter registration applications that we obtain and we are turning in are legitimate and good. We know that we're adding new voters to the rolls.
ROSE: Even if Republicans do succeed in disqualifying some Democratic registrants, Franklin and Marshall College pollster Terry Madonna says the GOP has bigger problems in the vote-rich Philadelphia suburbs, which often decide state-wide elections.
Mr. TERRY MADONNA (Pollster, Franklin and Marshall College): Just going after, you know, even a few thousand registrants isn't going to help them, given the political environment that now exists. The causes of the defection of voters in the Philadelphia suburbs are much more fundamental.
ROSE: Obama volunteer Rita Hinick says she's personally helped one voter switch parties.
Ms. HINECK: A lot of people, they're fed up. We're borrowing from China. There's a war. There are so many reasons that people are changing, not only because of Obama.
ROSE: Still, it's not clear how much the Democrats' registration advantage in Pennsylvania will actually help Barack Obama in November. Polls show him with just a single digit lead over Republican John McCain. For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose in Philadelphia.
COHEN: The battle over voter registration isn't just heating up in Pennsylvania, it's happening all over the country. Law suits, troubled voting technologies, even the failing housing market might wind up affecting who gets to vote in November and whether those votes are counted.
For more, we're joined now by Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU. It's a non-partisan organization that monitors elections. Wendy, thank you for joining us. According to a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, there are 7,000 lawyers working with the Democratic Party on voter registration issues. Besides Pennsylvania, where and what are some of the biggest legal concerns?
Ms. WENDY WEISER (Deputy Director, Democracy Program, Brennan Center for Justice): Over the past four or five years, we've seen a huge increase in the number of new rules affecting voter registration. A lot of these are creating hurdles and barriers for voter registration drives, for voters, and all across the country, we're seeing the need for lawyers in many places to - not only to make sure that the system is hospitable to voters, but really to understand how it works now.
COHEN: What are some of the hurdles?
Ms. WEISER: In a number of states, voter registration now is not being made available at social service agencies, even though it's required by federal law. There are laws in some states like New Mexico, Florida, Texas, and others that have shut down or dramatically curtailed voter registration drives. And particularly appalling has been the refusal of the Department of Veterans Affairs to allow state election officials or civic groups to provide voter registration services to the residents of their facilities.
States are refusing to allow voters to get on the rolls based on computer matching processes that miss 20 percent of eligible people. We're seeing sweeping purges of the voter rolls without public notice, without notice to the affected voters.
COHEN: Your organization has also pointed out that the recent rise in home foreclosures could affect registration. How might that affect the election?
Ms. WEISER: In most states, if you move out of the election jurisdiction, you have to reregister or inform election officials of your change of address, and that could really affect your voting rights. In most years, about 14 percent of Americans move. This year, those numbers are expected to dramatically increase because of the foreclosure crisis. And we've seen reports in many states, Ohio, Minnesota, for example, where the foreclosures are already burdening election officials.
COHEN: Voter registration is up all over the U.S. Making sure that those names are legitimate obviously takes staff. It takes money. Who's paying for that, and how much is it costing right now?
Ms. WEISER: The election system is paid for by each and every state and each and every local election jurisdiction. And they all have their own budgets. And they're all understaffed and under budgeted. We are not putting sufficient resources into our election to make sure that we can actually handle this tsunami of participation.
COHEN: You mention all of these different issues that are going on right now. The election is just a few months away. Is there going to be enough time to sort all of this out before November?
Ms. WEISER: Well, we certainly hope so. I mean, there are a number of steps that we can and should take right away. We should certainly do what we can to make sure that election officials have the resources they need to process all these new voter registrations. We need to make sure we have enough machines at the polling places. We need to make sure that we have enough emergency paper ballots in case there are breakdowns, enough poll workers.
In terms of voter registration, we need to make sure that each and every eligible American can get on the voter rolls, and voters can do their part by making sure that they're registered. And they can make sure that they send in change of address forms if they've changed their address to reduce the likelihood that they might be bumped from the rolls.
COHEN: Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU, thank you.
Ms. WEISER: Thank you.
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