Wednesday, October 11, 2006

New voter registration laws leave thousands off the rolls

New voter registration laws leave thousands off the rolls
By Richard Wolf, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON — Some of this year's elections could be decided by those who can't vote.

Across the country, new laws restricting who can register and vote have reduced the number of people who are eligible. Some of those laws have been blocked in court. Even so, critics say, the damage has been done:

•In Arizona, about 21,000 voter registration applications were rejected because of inadequate proof of citizenship, required under a 2004 law. Most who were affected lacked up-to-date driver's licenses, birth certificates or passports.

A federal appellate court blocked enforcement of the law — which also requires voters to show ID at the polls — last week, four days before the registration deadline. "We're looking at an enormous disparate impact on people of color," says Linda Brown, executive director of the Arizona Advocacy Network.

•In Florida, a law setting up new requirements for independent groups that register voters prompted the League of Women Voters to suspend registration drives for five months until a court intervened. In that period, the league could have registered thousands of people, The registration deadline is Tuesday. "You've just got to assume it's going to have an impact," says Dianne Wheatley-Giliotti, the league's state president.

•In Ohio, a law that made paid workers liable for the validity of the registrations they collect caused several groups to stop signing up voters for two months this summer. By the time courts intervened, the opportunity had been lost for thousands of registrations.

The group ACORN, which advocates for low-income families, wanted to sign up 138,000 Ohioans this year; now it will settle for 100,000. "Those were really the critical months," head organizer Katy Gall says. "In past years, we've met or exceeded our goals."

Advocates of registration and photo identification laws say they are needed to prevent fraud. They say the rules apply to all potential voters, regardless of race, ethnicity, income or ideology. "This is a matter of voter confidence, whether or not the fraud is real or perceived," says Indiana Secretary of State Todd Rokita, whose state has one of the nation's strictest ID requirements.

Laws tightening the rules on registrations also have been passed in Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Missouri, New Mexico and Washington. Laws imposing photo ID requirements at the polls were passed in Georgia and Missouri, but courts have intervened.

Paul DeGregorio, chairman of the Election Assistance Commission, says the laws should not discourage citizens from voting. Far worse, he says, would be for states to ignore problems that cause Americans to distrust the process.

Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law disagrees. "All of them will have an impact in suppressing votes," she says. "Even when courts have overturned them, they have ongoing impact."

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