Burden put on voter rolls

Both sides see fraud as risk, fight over cure

The Nation Votes 2006


CLEVELAND -- For Tony Minor, the pastor of the Community of Faith Assembly in a rundown section of East Cleveland, Ohio's new voter registration rules have meant spending two extra hours a day collecting half as many registration cards from new voters as he did in past years.

Republicans say the new rules are needed to prevent fraud, but Democrats say they are making it much harder to register the poor.

In the past year, six states have passed such restrictions, and in three states, including Ohio, civic groups have filed lawsuits, arguing that the rules disproportionately affect poor neighborhoods.

But nowhere have the rules been as fiercely debated as here, partly because they are being implemented by J. Kenneth Blackwell, the secretary of state and the Republican candidate in one of the most closely watched governor's races in the country, a contest that will be affected by the voter registration rules. Blackwell did not write the law, but he has been accused of imposing regulations that are more restrictive than was intended.

Under the law, passed by the Republican-led state Legislature in January, paid voter registration workers must personally submit the voter registration cards to the state, rather than allow the organizations overseeing the drives to vet and submit them in bulk.

By requiring paid canvassers to sign and put their addresses on the voter registration cards they collect, and by making them criminally liable for any irregularities on the cards, the rules have made it more difficult to use such workers, who most often work in lower-income and Democratic-leaning neighborhoods, where volunteers are scarce.

"In Washington, D.C., Congress may have passed the voting rights bill to extend voter participation," said Katy Gall, organizing director of Ohio ACORN, an advocacy group that focuses on poor neighborhoods. "But out here at the grass roots, things are headed in the opposite direction."

Gall said the group had collected fewer than 200 new voter registration cards in the past month, down from an average of 7,000 a month before the regulations took effect May 2.

"Quit whining," said the Rev. Russell Johnson, the pastor of Fairfield Christian Church, who chuckled while shaking his head. "We work with the same challenges that everyone else does, and we're not having trouble."

Surrounded by cornfields and middle-income homes, Johnson's 4,000-member evangelical church in Lancaster, Ohio, is part of a coalition of conservative groups that aims to sign up 200,000 new voters by November, he said.

In the past several elections, Republicans have been effective in registering voters and getting them to the polls. Johnson said conservatives were better able to depend on voter registration volunteers because the conservatives had a message that attracted people who were willing to work free.

But Republicans are in an uphill battle in the face of investigations involving Gov. Bob Taft, who has pleaded no contest to charges of not reporting thousands of dollars in gifts given to him, and of Rep. Bob Ney, who has been linked to the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal.

Backers of the new regulations say they were needed, pointing to the fake names that appeared on voter registration cards in 2004, like Jive Turkey Sr.

"The new regulations have everything to do with preventing Jive Turkeys from showing up on cards the way they did last time," said John McClelland, a spokesman for the state Republican Party. "They've got nothing to do with suppressing voter participation." But elections experts and liberal grass-roots organizations say the new rules go too far.

"All this flak about Jive Turkey is a red herring," said Catherine Turcer, the legislative director for Ohio Citizen Action, a nonpartisan government watchdog group in Columbus.

Ohio state officials have said that such names appeared because voter registration groups were paying their workers per registration card, which created an incentive to submit fake names.

The new regulations forbid this type of payment, a move that all grass-roots organizations seem to agree is for the better.

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