Justice Dept. Accused of Partisan Voter-Roll Purge Voting-rights advocates see partisan motives behind the Justice Department's aggressive campaign to get states to purge ineligible voters from voter-registration lists. Justice officials counter by pointing to recent efforts to register eligible voters.
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Justice Dept. Accused of Partisan Voter-Roll Purge

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Justice Dept. Accused of Partisan Voter-Roll Purge

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Justice Dept. Accused of Partisan Voter-Roll Purge

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

And we're going to begin this hour with politics and voting rights. A big challenge for the next attorney general will be showing that the Justice Department's enforcement of voting laws is not political. Voting rights advocates say the department under Alberto Gonzales pursued a partisan effort to limit the number of voters. The Justice Department points to recent efforts to sign up more voters.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: Joe Rich recalls a meeting he and other Justice Department officials had in 2004 with two voter advocacy groups, Project Vote and Demos. They had evidence that part of the National Voter Registration Act, or Motor Voter law, wasn't being enforced. It required states to make voter registration available at social service agencies to encourage low-income and disadvantaged voters.

JOE RICH: Demos brought us a very detailed report that they had done, which showed significant problem.

FESSLER: Rich, a career employee, who at the time headed the Civil Rights Division's voting section, wanted to pursue the issue. Higher-ups felt otherwise.

RICH: I was told by Mr. Hans von Spakovsky, who was then the primary supervisor of the voting section - he was a political appointee - that he really didn't think there was any merit to this and he brushed it off without any action at all.

FESSLER: But Rich says a few months later, von Spakovsky directed the office to push another part of the Motor Voter law.

RICH: The types of cases that require states to purge voters.

FESSLER: And indeed, the Justice Department in 2005 began an aggressive campaign to enforce a requirement that states clean up their voter registration lists, eliminating duplications or names of those who moved. The department filed suits against four states. Von Spakovsky, now a nominee for the Federal Election Commission, defended the effort at a Senate confirmation hearing in June.

HANS VON SPAKOVSKY: NVRA - this is, again, Congress telling the states - says that you have to engage in regular list maintenance in order to take off people who are ineligible, such as voters who died.

FESSLER: He denied the department's effort was political, saying it targeted democratic and Republican-run states, and also the improper removal of legitimate voters, but the effort was controversial.

Todd Graves, the U.S. attorney for the Western District of Missouri who was later fired, refused to sign onto the department's lawsuit against Missouri. Other states were taken aback by letters from Justice questioning the accuracy of their roles.

North Carolina election director Gary Bartlett received one letter in 2005, and another earlier this year.

GARY BARTLETT: The first one, I would have said that was threatening. The second one was more of a nuisance.

FESSLER: A nuisance, he says, because the department's numbers were off base. Justice had compared North Carolina voter rolls with Census figures and found that more people registered in some areas than there were voting-age residents. On the surface, it was a legitimate concern. But Bartlett says the figures were old and didn't take into account areas such as college towns where students can vote, but might not be counted in the Census. There were also inactive voters, who by law, are kept on the rolls for several years before they can be removed.

BARTLETT: We want a clean list, but we do not want so overzealous that we administratively make some type of error that might impact an eligible registered voter to be disenfranchised.

FESSLER: And that's the concern for advocacy groups. In Kentucky last year, several hundred voters were mistakenly removed from the rolls as part of a larger purge. Brian Mellor is senior counsel for Project Vote.

BRIAN MELLOR: The people who tend to get removed from rolls on these kinds of purges tend to be the lower-income, more- mobile people, you know, the minorities, et cetera.

FESSLER: Traditionally considered Democratic voters. Mellor finds it curious that the Justice Department was so eager to enforce the purging requirements while doing little to make sure states provide registration of social service agencies. So instead, Project Vote has been pushing states to comply, threatening at least two lawsuits.

MELLOR: We've got to go out and do the job for the Justice Department.

FESSLER: But the department says that isn't so, that they, too, are concerned that some states aren't doing enough to get new voters on the rolls. The department recently sent letters to 18 states asking them to explain.

Asheesh Agarwal is deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights.

ASHEESH AGARWAL: What we want is for all of the states to comply with both the registration provisions of Motor Voter so that it's easy for eligible voters to register to vote, and we want them to comply with a list maintenance provision, so the voters can have confidence that only eligible voters are voting.

FESSLER: Project Vote's Mellor says that's great if true. He's waiting to see how aggressively the department follows through.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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