State election officials have responded angrily to an alarming New York Times report that tens of thousands of eligible voters in swing states appear to have been illegally purged or blocked from the rolls.
Secretaries of state face mounting pressure as deadlines approach for them to finalize their voter rolls, amid a dramatic spike in new registrants. In some states, Republicans have taken legal action to force election officials to verify the identity of every last voter. In others, civil rights advocates have sued to challenge laws that block voters from registering unless their driver's license or Social Security numbers match up perfectly with public records.
The nightmare is probably just beginning for election officials.
The Times investigation threw gasoline into this combustible mix, reporting on Oct. 9 that election officials in at least six swing states are removing voters from the rolls in apparent violation of federal laws that bar such purges within 90 days of an election. Officials at the Social Security Administration, concerned over the unusually high volume of verification requests from election administrators, have asked the Justice Department to investigate, the Times also reported.
The report roiled both state election officials and civil rights advocates. Calling it "very disturbing," Caroline Fredrickson, who directs the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington Legislative Office, joined the SSA in calling for a Justice Department probe.
"The Justice Department must prosecute these states for being overly aggressive in purging voter rolls and blocking people from registering to vote," she said in a statement. In addition to banning purges during the 90-day window, the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 requires election officials to wait two cycles and notify voters before removing them from the rolls.
"It appears that these states are not following the federal law," said Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a civil rights group that has joined in a legal challenge to Florida's so-called "No Match, No Vote" law. "And if they are not, I can assure you that the voter protection community will be hauling people into court to get [voters] back on the rolls."
For their part, secretaries of state are "furious," said one Washington player close to the controversy. "They're really bewildered."
The Times singled out six states for aggressively screening and purging voters: Colorado, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Nevada and North Carolina. Gary O. Bartlett, executive director of North Carolina's elections board, responded with a 10-page press release complaining that such stories "undermine the public's confidence" in the state's elections.
Bartlett cited "several safeguards" that protect voters whose numbers do not match, noting that county officials seek to obtain missing information before the election "if time permits." If not, voters may produce identification at the polls, he noted, or cast a provisional ballot -- which is counted once eligibility is verified.
State election officials have their own beef with the Social Security Administration, which performed a routine shutdown of its database to perform list maintenance over the Columbus Day weekend. The National Association of Secretaries of State had asked the SSA to postpone this shutdown until after the election so that new registrants could be processed in time, without success.
Senate Rules and Administration Committee Chair Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., also had written [PDF] to SSA Commissioner Michael J. Astrue last month to request that he postpone the shutdown. But following the Times report, Feinstein also stressed that election officials must follow federal laws restricting purges.
"We need to be confident that when voters are removed from the rolls, states are following the law," Feinstein said. "That 90-day time frame prior to an election gives voters a chance to check their registration status and fix any problems prior to the close of voter registration."
The purges do not appear partisan, the Times report stated, but stem from efforts to comply with the 2002 Help America Vote Act. For months, election experts have warned of problems with the law's ambiguous list maintenance rules.
The law required states to develop computerized, statewide voter registration databases to clean up their error-riddled voter rolls. For new registrants, the law also requires states to match either the voter's driver's license, government ID or Social Security number with public records. But the states are overusing the Social Security number, the report states, which was supposed to be matched only if voters could provide no other identifying number.
"This is a process in every state that is really just evolving," said R. Michael Alvarez, a political science professor at the California Institute of Technology, one of two election experts to verify the Times report's methodology. "And unfortunately, a lot of the evolution is occurring right now, right in the midst of a very, very competitive presidential election."
"This is inevitable, given the pressure on the states to clean their lists, the fact that the process for this is evolving, and that we're preparing for record voter turnout," concurred Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org, a project of the Pew Center on the States. "The outside world is bearing down on election officers in a way that even if they were prepared for it, they didn't expect."
Indeed, the nightmare is probably just beginning for election officials. If recent reports of illegal purges don't spark more legal action, fresh fights over who can and should be voting in this election inevitably will.