From The New York Times:
For Tony Minor, the pastor of the Community of Faith Assembly in a run-down 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 last 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 administered 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. Mr. 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 2006, 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.”
Ms. Gall said the group had collected fewer than 200 new voter registration cards in the last month, down from an average of 7,000 a month before the regulations took effect on 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, Mr. 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. Mr. 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 failing to report thousands of dollars in gifts given to him, and of Representative 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. “Yes, his name showed up on a voter registration card along with Dick Tracy, Mary Poppins and Michael Jordan. But none of them showed up at the polls, which is really what matters, and cases like theirs were a total rarity that did not justify such restrictive new measures.”
Back in East Cleveland, the copier machine at the Community of Faith Assembly church was overheating, and Mr. Minor was about to do the same. One new rule requires paid canvassers to return signed registration cards within 10 days to county boards of elections or the secretary of state’s office, rather than to the group paying the canvassers.
To comply with the rule, Mr. Minor has created an elaborate system so the cards do not leave the possession of the canvasser, and so he can make copies of them to get reimbursed by the People for the American Way, which is financing his voter registration drive.
Another rule requires that all paid workers take an online training course. “The problem there is that we’ve got a computer that freezes up every time we try to load the online program,” Mr. Minor said.
Politics have also ratcheted up the debate. In 2004, Mr. Blackwell was a co-chairman of President Bush’s re-election committee, and while the new law would prevent him from holding such a position in the future, his dual role as electoral overseer and candidate for governor has become a favorite target of his opponents.
On July 10, at an Acorn event in Columbus, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton accused Mr. Blackwell of a conflict of interest. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee followed suit with a letter to Mr. Blackwell, calling for him to relinquish his election duties as secretary of state. That sentiment has been echoed by Representative Ted Strickland, a five-term Democrat who has an 11-percentage-point lead over Mr. Blackwell in the governor’s race, according to a Rasmussen Reports survey released Aug. 1.
Mr. Blackwell, who did not respond to requests for an interview, has said he is only carrying out the law that was handed to him by the legislature. If he has any conflict of interest, Mr. Blackwell’s campaign has said, so do the Democratic secretaries of state in Iowa and Georgia, who also ran for governor.
Wendy R. Weiser, a law professor at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law and a lawyer in several of the suits opposing new voter registration regulations, said Ohio must be considered in a national context.
In Florida, the League of Women Voters and other groups are suing over a new law that imposes heavy fines for candidates if they submit forms late or if there are errors on the forms, Ms. Weiser said. In Georgia, the legislature passed a voter-identification law last year requiring citizens to purchase a government-issued ID card to present at the polls, but it was blocked by a federal judge as being a modern-day poll tax.
“I do believe,” Ms. Weiser said, “there is a national trend of using the straw man of voter fraud as a way to impose restrictive regulations on voting and voter registration.”
But what, then, is to be made of Jive Turkey Sr.?
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.
As for the level of threat posed by Mr. Turkey: a report compiled in 2005 by Mr. Ney, the Ohio congressman, cited news media reports of “thousands” of cases of voter registration fraud being investigated by local officials. But a separate study last year by the League of Women Voters found that voter registration fraud did not necessarily result in fraud at the polls. Out of 9,078,728 votes cast in Ohio in 2002 and 2004, the report said, only four ballots were fraudulent, according to statistics provided by officials from the state’s 88 county boards of elections.