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Van Hollen’s Voter-Check Lawsuit Sets Off a Tempest It Could Force Data Review on Million Voters, Election Official Says

September 12, 2008

By PATRICK MARLEY

Madison — Officials and interest groups clashed Thursday over the meaning of Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen’s lawsuit against the state’s election authority, with some saying it would force thousands off the voter rolls and others arguing it would protect the rights of legitimate voters.

Also Thursday, an election official said the lawsuit could force clerks to check data on about 1 million voters. And critics accused Van Hollen — a Republican serving as the state co-chair of John McCain’s presidential campaign — of filing the suit for partisan gain.

Van Hollen sued the state Government Accountability Board Wednesday, saying it must crosscheck voter names with driver’s license records for some voters who registered to vote or changed their addresses since Jan. 1, 2006.

Such checks were required under federal law as of that date, but the board didn’t start performing them until last month because of technical problems.

A hearing has been set for Sept. 19 before Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi. Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle — who was co-chair of Barack Obama’s primary campaign in Wisconsin — hired Madison attorney Lester Pines on Thursday at the board’s request.

The question that emerged Thursday was what would happen to voters who failed the checks if Van Hollen prevails. His aides said the board would have to remove truly ineligible voters from the rolls — such as felons serving their sentences or dead people — but that it would be up to the board to determine who was qualified to vote.

One in five voters who were checked last month initially failed the tests, often because of typos or missing initials.

Kevin Kennedy, the board’s director, said voters could be disenfranchised if Van Hollen wins.

“The board believes it would be counterproductive to rush this effort and to create a significant risk, at best, of unnecessary hardship and confusion at the polls, and at worst, the disenfranchisement of Wisconsin citizens with a clear and legitimate right to vote,” he said in a statement.

Department of Justice officials disputed that, saying voters would have time to correct any errors. If they were removed from the list, they could register to vote at the polls with proof of residence. Those without proof of residence on hand could cast provisional ballots, which would be counted if the voter provided proof of residence by 4 p.m. the next day.

“We don’t think those steps are all that onerous,” Deputy Attorney General Ray Taffora said.

Others do.

“The rule Attorney General Van Hollen wants the (board) to implement would cause long lines and confusion at the polls on a day when a record number of citizens will be seeking to exercise their right to vote,” the League of Women Voters of Wisconsin said in a news release. The League added: “Worst of all, it would mean that many, many Wisconsin citizens would not be able to cast a vote and have it counted.”

But Mark Jefferson, executive director of the state Republican Party, praised Van Hollen for the suit.

“I do think the Government Accountability Board is simply not taking the (law’s) requirements seriously, and, thankfully, the attorney general is,” he said.

Federal voter law

Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002 in response to the election chaos that engulfed Florida in 2000. The law required states to create voter databases that could compare voter information to driver, felon and death records.

The databases were supposed to be running by Jan. 1, 2006, but Wisconsin’s wasn’t fully functional until last month.

Since Aug. 6, the board has been performing checks on people who register to vote or change their addresses.

Van Hollen said he wants the board to also check records for the 241,000 voters who registered or changed their addresses between Jan. 1, 2006, and Aug. 5, 2008, if they filed their paperwork by mail or with special registration deputies who work for volunteer groups. Election officials in Milwaukee have referred 49 special registration deputies to prosecutors on fraud allegations.

Nat Robinson, the board’s elections administrator, said he believed the suit would affect anyone who filed paperwork on or after Jan. 1, 2006 — about 1 million people, including those who registered at the polls or in a clerk’s office.

Whether the number is 241,000 or 1 million, election officials say such a requirement would cripple efforts to prepare for the Nov. 4 presidential election because they don’t have the staff to check so many names in the next eight weeks.

When the records don’t match, clerks try to correct the information. If they can’t, they send a letter to the voters telling them to contact the clerks to rectify the situation. People who do not correct their information still retain the right to vote, under the Government Accountability Board’s policy.

Paring lists is possible

Asked Wednesday if he was seeking to remove people from the voter rolls if their data did not match, Van Hollen said: “We’re not addressing that at all. The law is not clear and leaves some discretion within the Government Accountability Board as to how they enforce (the law) and how they make sure the voter rolls are accurate based upon the checks.”

Kevin St. John, an assistant to Van Hollen, clarified Thursday that the suit was asking the judge to require the board to remove people from the list if they were ineligible to vote. But Van Hollen wants to leave it to the board to determine what criteria determine if one is ineligible to vote, St. John said.

One Wisconsin Now, a group that has been criticizing McCain and other Republicans, said Van Hollen should step aside in the case because of his role with the McCain campaign.

St. John said the attacks were baseless.

“Fair elections is not a partisan issue,” he said.

Van Hollen said before the accusations were leveled he was not motivated by partisanship.

“I think people will realize if there’s one thing we haven’t done since I’ve been attorney general is do things for partisan or political reasons,” he said. “I’m not going to avoid doing what our job is, which is to enforce the law, because I’m afraid of what aspersions may be cast my way.”

Van Hollen has frustrated Republicans in the past on some issues, such as clearing Doyle of wrongdoing in a review of how the state handled the sale of a nuclear power plant.

Van Hollen said earlier this week that he brought the lawsuit to prevent voter fraud, but Gordon Myse, a member of the Government Accountability Board, questioned that claim.

“Because two bureaucratic databases don’t match is no indication of any fraudulent voting,” he said.

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