Voter Registrations Could Face Legal Challenges Political groups are wrangling over voter registrations and access to the polls. In Ohio, Democrats and Republicans are fighting over interpretation of a state law, which Democrats say allows voters to register and immediately cast an absentee ballot. Republicans say that opens the door to fraud.
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Voter Registrations Could Face Legal Challenges

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Voter Registrations Could Face Legal Challenges

Voter Registrations Could Face Legal Challenges

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

Political interest groups are stepping up their campaigns on several fronts as the November elections near. In a moment we'll hear about a new ad campaign opposing immigration.

First, this election season is expected to bring out a record number of voters, and the voter registrations could come under a record amount of scrutiny. One outcome could be a wave of legal action. NPR's Pam Fessler went to the battleground state of Ohio for this report.

PAM FESSLER: One group that's trying to dot all its I's and cross its T's this year is ACORN. It's a nonpartisan poverty organization that's registered more than a million new voters. ACORN's had problems in the past. Some of its canvassers were found guilty of filing fake registration forms. So this year the group's double-checking every application.

Mr. WAYNE KYLE(ph) (ACORN Worker): My name is Wayne and I'm with Columbus ACORN and I'm just calling to verify your voter registration information.

FESSLER: Wayne Kyle sits in an ACORN office below a Chinese restaurant in a Columbus strip mall. It's hot, and small fans hum in the background. He's calling people listed on registration forms turned in by other ACORN workers.

Mr. KYLE: You currently live at 1686 Woodland? Could you verify your birthdate, please?

FESSLER: Kyle says most forms are accurate, although there are mistakes. Once in a while a registration's clearly fake.

Mr. KYLE: You catch it when you call them, 'cause like you'll call and they'll be, like, well, this person doesn't live here or it's the wrong number, you know, so...

FESSLER: ACORN flags those forms for local election officials as potential problems. In the next room, canvassers Ray Burs(ph) and Victor Terry(ph) practice how to sign up new voters so mistakes are kept at a minimum.

Unidentified Man #1: Is this signature your signature?

Unidentified Man #2: Can I write on these words?

Unidentified Man #1: Because when they scan it, your name is going to be right there.

Unidentified Man #2: Oh, okay.

FESSLER: ACORN has reason to be concerned. Both political parties and presidential campaigns have lined up thousands of lawyers to scrutinize every aspect of how elections are conducted this year. As part of a broad debate over who should have access to the polls, it's also Politics 101. Republicans say they're worried about potential fraud because of sometimes sloppy registration drives, which just happen to focus on traditional Democratic voters such as minorities and students.

Kevin DeWine(ph) is deputy chairman of the Ohio Republican Party.

Mr. KEVIN DEWINE (Ohio Republican Party): Any time there's a story about people voting who shouldn't have, people playing games with the system, it undermines voter confidence.

FESSLER: He says Republicans are keeping an eye on registrations and also on Ohio's Democratic Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner. She recently directed that individuals who register during a five-day period next month can also cast an absentee ballot on the same day. DeWine says that's a violation of Ohio law and the party is threatening to sue.

Mr. DEWINE: We don't keep a check on her when she breaks the law this time, what are we going to do the next time she breaks the law?

Ms. JENNIFER BRUNNER (Secretary of State, Ohio): It's never been interpreted this way in the past, so I think what they're doing is making much ado about nothing.

FESSLER: Brunner sits in the office that used to be occupied by former Republican Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, who Democrats accused of trying to sabotage the last election with his directives. Brunner notes that the registration law has been on the books for years. It was only when the Obama campaign said it would bus supporters in to register and vote early that Republicans protested.

Brunner has been trying to get both sides to resolve disputes early to avoid disrupting the election, but the signs are not promising.

Ms. BRUNNER: You know, this kind of confusion appeared to have worked in Ohio in 2004, and apparently this must be the modus operandi for the other side to continue this kind of confusion and to disenfranchise voters.

FESSLER: And Democrats say they're ready. Doug Kelly is executive director of the state party.

Mr. DOUG KELLY (Ohio Democratic Party): We hired an election protection director a year before this past election. And she and now nine others have been building a county-by-county network of activists and volunteer attorneys to make sure there's a free, fair, open and honest election.

FESSLER: One thing Democrats worry about is that Republicans will challenge voters based on mailings sent to all registered voters last week. A GOP spokesman says there are no plans for such challenges, but Republicans say that notices returned as undeliverable could mean invalid registrations and possibly fraud.

Democrat Kelly says Republicans exaggerate the extent of voter fraud.

Mr. KELLY: It's just, again, a way to keep people from voting. This is the same old type of scare tactics they've been using for a number of years.

Mr. DEWINE: Oh, it's the same old tired line that the Democrats use every time we try to do something that is simply aimed at upholding the law.

FESSLER: Republican DeWine says his party is just as interested as Democrats in expanding voter participation, which raises the most recent dispute: The McCain campaign sent supporters absentee ballot request forms, but Brunner says they're invalid if voters don't check a certain eligibility box. Republicans say that's not required by state law. So stay tuned.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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