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Context of 'Morning, October 29, 2004: Halting of Voter Registration Hearings Approved by Appeal Court'

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The National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), or the “Motor Voter” Bill, signed into law by President Clinton, increases opportunities for voter registration. It particularly impacts minority and low-income voters. The NVRA requires states to provide for voter registration by mail, to allow voters to register when they receive driver’s licenses, and to allow voter registration at state agencies such as welfare and unemployment offices. The NVRA provides for the Justice Department to use federal courts to ensure compliance, and gives the Federal Election Commission (FEC) the responsibility of helping the 50 states develop mail-in voter registration forms. (In 2002, that responsibility will be shifted to the Election Assistance Commission under the Help America Vote Act—see October 29, 2002.) The NVRA takes effect on January 1, 1995, in all but six states—Idaho, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Wisconsin, and Wyoming—because they have no voter registration requirements, or they have election-day registration at polling places. Arkansas, Vermont, and Virginia are given extra time to comply with the NVRA because they need to modify their state constitutions. Many states, including California, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, New York, South Carolina, Vermont, and Virginia, will refuse to comply with the NVRA, and the resulting court cases will establish the constitutionality of the NVRA, and the Justice Department will order the states to drop their objections and comply with the act. (American Civil Liberties Union 2012; US Department of Justice 2012)

The Ohio Republican Party, headed by Robert T. Bennett, sends 232,000 letters to all of Ohio’s voters who registered between January 1 and August 31. The letter reportedly welcomes the newly registered voters and encourages them to vote Republican. Roughly 30,000 of the letters are returned as undeliverable either because the intended recipients do not exist, have moved or died, or because the letters went to vacant houses or bogus addresses. Commenting on the large number of returned ballots, Bennett later tells the Columbus Dispatch, “It was an astounding number. The potential for these fraudulent registrations to produce fraudulent votes at the ballot box is very real.” David Sullivan, Ohio coordinator for the Democrats’ voter-protection project, disagrees, claiming that the Republicans’ mass mailing was “an unprecedented effort to throw tens of thousands of voters off of Ohio’s voting rolls.” (Niquette 10/23/2004)

In Ohio, Republican Party officials submit a list of 35,427 registered voters in 65 different counties whose mailing addresses, they say, are questionable to county election boards. 17,717 names on the list are of newly registered voters from Cuyahoga County, which includes Cleveland, a Democratic stronghold. (Niquette 10/23/2004; Moss 10/23/2004)

The GOP withdraws about 5,000 challenges (See October 22, 2004) in Hamilton County after discovering errors. (Theis 10/31/2004)

County election boards in Ohio hold hearings to verify the voting addresses of roughly 30,000 recently registered voters whose eligibility to vote has been challenged by the Republican Party (see October 22, 2004). (WTOV 9 (Steubenville, OH) 10/27/2004; Dao 10/29/2004) According to Democratic officials, Republicans challenging voters at the hearings have little or no evidence to support their claims, other than that the voter’s registration card was returned “undeliverable” (see Between September 2004 and Mid-October 2004). In Summit County, elections officials reject all 976 challenges after the challengers fail to provide evidence. Similarly, in Warren County, officials throw out every one of the county’s 23 challenges. (Theis 10/31/2004)

Judge Susan J. Dlott, of Federal District Court in Cincinnati, blocks the election boards of six Ohio counties—Franklin, Lawrence, Medina, Cuyahoga, Scioto, and Trumbull—from holding voter verification hearings (see October 23, 2004-October 29, 2004). (WTOV 9 (Steubenville, OH) 10/27/2004; Dao 10/29/2004)

The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit upholds Judge Susan Dlott’s October 28 ruling (see October 28, 2004) halting voter registration hearings (see October 23, 2004-October 29, 2004) in six Ohio counties. (Dao 10/29/2004)

Judge Susan Dlott issues an injunction halting challenge hearings (See October 23, 2004-October 29, 2004) in all of the state’s 88 counties. (Dao 10/29/2004)

Following Judge Susan Dlott’s ruling (see Afternoon, October 29, 2004), Ohio Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell instructs Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro to recommend to federal judges that all challengers be barred from polling locations. (Niquette 10/31/2004; Andrews 11/1/2004) He reasons that poll workers hired and paid by the local election boards and supplied by the parties should be able to protect against voter fraud. He also says the challengers could generate confusion. (Dao 10/29/2004; Sloat 10/31/2004) But Petro refuses, saying that to do so would be a violation of Ohio law. “Neither the secretary of state nor I can negotiate away the legal rights of Ohio’s citizens,” Petro says in a statement. “Thus, I cannot submit to the federal courts the secretary’s unlawful proposal to ban all challengers for all parties, candidates or issues on Election Day.” Both officials are Republicans. (Sloat 10/31/2004; Niquette 10/31/2004; Andrews 11/1/2004)

The US 6th Circuit Court of Appeals overturns a ruling made by a federal district court the previous day (See Evening, October 31, 2004) which had barred Republicans from challenging voters at the polls (See 4:00 p.m., October 22, 2004). The appeals court is presided by three judges, two of which were appointed by Republican presidents—Judge John M. Rogers, who was appointed by President Bush in 2002, and Senior Judge James L. Ryan, who was appointed by President Reagan in 1985. Judge Rogers writes in the court’s decision: “Longer lines may, of course, result from delays and confusion when one side in a political controversy employs” challenges “more vigorously than in previous elections,” but “such a possibility does not amount to the severe burden upon the right to vote” that would justify a court order. Appeals Court Judge R. Guy Cole Jr., a 1995 appointee of President Clinton, disagrees. In his dissenting opinion, he says that under the Republican plan, “partisan challengers for the first time since the civil rights era seek to target precincts that have a majority African American population and without any legal standards or restrictions, challenge the voter qualifications of people as they stand waiting to exercise their fundamental right to vote.” He adds: “In this case, we anticipate the arrival of hundreds of Republican lawyers to challenge voter registration at the polls. Behind them will be hundreds of Democrat lawyers to challenge these challengers’ challenges. This is a recipe for confusion and chaos.” (Weinstein 11/2/2004)

US District Court Judge William C. O’Kelley finds that Georgia Secretary of State Cathy Cox, a Democrat currently running for governor, violated voter rights by unlawfully working to block voter registration drives. Cox is also facing criticism of her handling of the state’s electronic voting contract with voting machine manufacturer Diebold. O’Kelley finds that Cox’s “rejection of voter registration applications on the ground that they were submitted in a bundle, or by someone who was not a registrar or deputy registrar, violated the NVRA [National Voter Registration Act, often called the Motor Voter law—see May 20, 1993].” Senate Minority Leader Gloria Butler, a fellow Democrat who has been critical of Cox’s actions, has introduced legislation that would codify the rights of private groups to conduct voter registration in Georgia, even though private groups already have that right. Butler recently told reporters, “These volunteers drive our voter registration in this state and we should make it easier, not harder, on them to help Georgia citizens complete the voter registration process.” She tells another reporter, “Strong voter registration rolls are the very foundation of our democracy and I will continue to fight for the rights of registered Georgians throughout the state.” Many critics say that Cox’s efforts to impede voter registration may have had what the Atlanta Progressive News calls “a disproportionate impact on outreach efforts to low-income individuals, working families, and the homeless, who often need advice about, and assistance with, registering to vote.” Cox was sued by the Wesley Foundation, the nonprofit charitable affiliate of a local chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, an African-American fraternal organization that ran a voter registration drive on June 12, 2004. Cox rejected all 63 voter registration applications submitted to her office from the fraternity, claiming that the fraternity representatives failed to follow proper procedures, including obtaining pre-clearance from her office to conduct the drive. Under the NVRA, the fraternity and other private organizations have the right to conduct voter registration drives without the presence or permission of state or local election officials. O’Kelley’s ruling requires Cox to notify all 159 of Georgia’s county boards of registrars that they are not authorized to reject applications submitted by private voter registration organizers in the future for reasons previously delineated by Cox, and for her to acknowledge to the plaintiffs that they did not engage in improper conduct. (Epting 3/10/2006)


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