MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. In the 2004 election, tens of thousands of voters had their eligibility questioned. Most often, they were challenged by Republicans, who cited concerns about voter fraud. Well, this year, even before the election, voters are already being challenged, including thousands in Montana last week. Democrats say that Republicans are trying to intimidate legitimate voters. As NPR's Pam Fessler reports, the laws governing voter challenges can be confusing.

PAM FESSLER: Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie recalls four years ago, when Republican challengers were brought into his state from Texas and Washington D.C. to watch the polls. He said some questioning of voters got so contentious fights broke out, and the police were called.

Secretary of State MARK RITCHIE (Democrat, Minnesota): Verbal challenges, we found, were both designed to be abusive and discouraged other voters in the line who didn't want to go through that kind of verbal abuse. And also, they were designed to slow the movement of the line to discourage voting.

FESSLER: So now, the state has a new law. Only residents can challenge another voter. The challenges have to be written down, and they must be based on direct, personal knowledge that, for example, someone doesn't live where they say they do. Ritchie says he wants to stop ineligible people from casting ballots.

Mr. RITCHIE: But we do not want the process of challenging to be a kind of backdoor way of preventing people from voting.

FESSLER: And that's a big concern in a lot of states, especially with the election so close. Democrats are already suing to prevent Michigan Republicans from using home foreclosure lists to question the eligibility of voters, even though Republicans have insisted repeatedly they have no plans to do so. But Republicans do say they'll be vigilant this year to protect against voter fraud.

Last week, the Montana GOP challenged thousands of voters after comparing their names against change of address forms indicating that the individuals had moved. Bridger Pierce is the state party's communication director.

Mr. BRIDGER PIERCE (Communication Director, Republican State Party, Montana): There's a large concern here, I think, among most Montanans, is our process fair? Is everything that's being done being done legally? I mean, when I go to the poll, and I vote for my candidate, is there somebody who's illegally voting on the other side of the issue for the other candidate?

FESSLER: The questioned voters are being notified. But how the challenges will be resolved is unclear. That's a big problem, according to voting rights advocates. Laws vary from state to state and are often vague. In 2004, Ohio Republicans drew up a list of 35,000 voters they planned to challenge based on letters sent to voters' homes and returned as undeliverable, a process known as caging.

In the end, the challenges were blocked, but the incident unnerved a lot of people. Now, partisan challengers are no longer allowed in Ohio polling places, and returned mail alone can't be used to cancel a registration.

Ms. TOVA WANG (Election Expert, Common Cause): Ohio needs to be singled out, I think, as a place that had this horrendous experience and actually took some proactive, not perfect, but very good steps to try and make sure that didn't happen again.

FESSLER: Tova Wang is an election expert with Common Cause. She says the problem is that Ohio is the exception rather than the rule.

Ms. WANG: In most states, it's pretty easy to challenge someone's right to either be on the voter registration list or challenge them at the polling place.

FESSLER: For example, she says, in Florida, any voter can challenge another by signing an affidavit saying they have reason to believe the person is ineligible, but the evidence required is unclear. In many states, it's up to the challenged voter to prove they are eligible by showing an ID or other proof. Wang says, in Pennsylvania, a challenged voter has to find another voter to vouch for their identity if they want to cast a regular ballot.

Ms. WANG: That means they better have come up with someone who they know, otherwise they might have a real problem and have to vote by provisional ballot.

FESSLER: And provisional ballots are problematic. They're ballots cast on election day but set aside and only counted after the controversy is resolved. But there again, rules differ from state to state, and many provisional ballots are rejected. Voters shouldn't get too worried, though, about being questioned at the polls. It's not all that common. Rick Hasen is an election law expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

Professor RICK HASEN (Election Law Expert, Loyola Law School Los Angeles): There's a lot of noise about challenging. It doesn't always materialize.

FESSLER: He says, more often than not, it's the threat of a challenge that can have the greatest impact, as it did in Ohio four years ago.

Mr. HASEN: Some people had speculated that that was part of the reason that it was mentioned. It was not that they're actually going to mount these challenges, but that it was really an attempt to get the get some people worried about long lines at the polls, maybe keep them away from the polls.

FESSLER: And in the current election, that could be crucial. Voting rights advocates say the smartest thing for eligible voters, especially new ones, is not to be intimidated and to make sure their registrations are in order before they go vote. Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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