Group contests voter rolls

A Tea Party-linked group attempted to get officials in 14 Ohio counties, including Montgomery and Butler, to remove at least 1,800 people from the voter registration rolls in the last few months, but found their efforts mostly thwarted by errors in their work, lack of documentation, and federal laws that strictly limit purging voter rolls, the Dayton Daily News found.

“It seems as though some groups are filing these challenges based on very scant evidence and in doing so they’re walking right up to the edge of voter intimidation,” said Ellis Jacobs, an attorney with the Miami Valley Voter Protection Coalition. “Unfortunately they don’t seem to take very seriously people’s right to vote.”

Mary Siegel, coordinator for the Ohio Voter Integrity Projec, said the group is not trying to keep people from voting.

Among those whose registrations were challenged by the group are a local couple, Brande and Michael Constable, who registered to vote using the Centerville UPS office that forwards their mail to them while they are on the road 10 months of the year in their RV traveling to renaissance festivals, where they sell jewelry.

“This is an outrage!” said Brande Constable, 38, a Democrat who volunteered for Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008. “I’ve heard of voter suppression stories from around the country but I never thought it would happen to me. I’d love to see the statistics of how many people were ‘discovered’ as voter registration fraud who are registered Republicans.”

Constable said her mother, Susie Watson who is on the road working in Texas and had planned to vote absentee will likely not be able to vote because she won’t be able to get back to Ohio to fight the challenge filed by Pam Holdren, an Oakwood resident working for Ohio Voter Integrity Project. Holdren, who challenged 125 Montgomery County voters’ registrations, directed comments to Siegel, a former Tea Party activist from Indian Hill.

“Our goal was to clean up the Ohio voter rolls,” said Siegel, who called the group “non-partisan” and said it focuses on voter challenges and recruiting and training pollworkers.

“It’s not looking for college people, it’s not looking for old people, it’s not looking for a certain party or people of a certain race,” Siegel said.

Many of the challenges were either of senior citizens, whom Holdren determined were dead based mostly on internet searches or of University of Dayton students. Across the state the group challenged college students - demographically more likely to vote Democratic - and targeted registrants where apartment numbers were not listed, lots were vacant, or where commercial structures were located. Butler County received 10 challenges, overruling all. Greene, Miami, Warren, Preble, Clark and Champaign counties had none.

Hamilton county had about 1,000 challenges, although it appears some may have come from a person not affiliated with the project, and county records show at least 200 people will be questioned by pollworkers if they appear at the polls. Cuyahoga County dismissed all 241 challenges, Lucas County all 131 and Franklin County all 308 that were filed, according to board officials.

“No one at our office, and some have worked there for decades, could remember seeing so many challenges at one time,” said Franklin County board spokesman Ben Piscitelli.

The Ohio Voter Integrity Project is affiliated with Texas-based True the Vote, which was founded by King Street Patriots Tea Party founder Catherine Englebrecht. Critics accuse the group of attempting to suppress votes and earlier this month U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Maryland, began an investigation of the group’s efforts to remove voters from the rolls in Ohio and other states. Siegel’s group uses True the Vote’s software to identify questionable voter registrations. For example, Siegel said the software looks at how many bedrooms are in a house and compares it to the number of people registered there.

“On the overall suppression charge we say it is not suppression by any means,”said True the Vote spokesman Logan Churchwell.

Siegel’s group challenged voters in Montgomery, Butler, Hamilton, Lucas, Franklin, Delaware, Fairfield, Lorain, Lucas, Cuyahoga, Lake, Portage, Stark and Wayne counties - nine of which were won by Obama in 2008. In Montgomery all but 26 challenges were found to be invalid, already purged or else people who were in the years-long federally-regulated process of being purged because they failed to vote in two federal elections, said Steve Harsman, deputy director of the board of elections.

The 26 - including the Constables and Watson - received letters informing them of the challenge and that post office boxes are not legitimate places of residence for voting purposes. Harsman is seeking counsel from the secretary of state on how to handle the Constables’ case because they live in their RV in a Warren County campground for the two months they are in the state. But Brande Constable says she pays taxes in Centerville and that the IRS and Bureau of Motor Vehicles recognize that as her place of residence. Harsman said the law allows people to claim a residence where they intend to return - which for Constable is Montgomery County. Or, Harsman said, the law allows her and Watson to claim their last place of residence - a property in Fairborn 15 years ago - as their home, and vote only in federal elections

Voter registration rolls typically contain names of people who don’t vote and who have died or moved without canceling their registration. There is no national database but Ohio cooperates with more than 20 states to share death notice information. A lawsuit by True the Vote is pending in federal court against Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted to force him to clean up the rolls. Spokeswoman Maggie Ostrowski said he already has worked to improve the accuracy by joining the consortium of states that share information, sending letters to people who appear on the National Change of Address database and other measures.

“There’s no crime in being on the rolls,” said Ostrowski. “The crime would be if you were to try to vote more than once.”

Cases of in-person voter fraud are extremely rare - with 10 alleged cases reported nationwide since 2000, according to an August Washington Post story outlining the findings of News21, a Carnegie-Knight investigative reporting project.

Siegel said even if voter fraud is rare, maintaining the inaccurate rolls is expensive for taxpayers because of the postage to send voting materials.

But Harsman said the cost of postage was far outweighed by the cost of having Director Betty Smith spend an entire week reviewing the invalid challenges.

“It is our right as citizens of our United States to challenge another,” responded Siegel. “What we are doing is bringing this to the attention of the board of elections.”

After challenges at the polls caused problems in 2008 the law was changed to require that those challenges be made 20 days before Election Day.

Harsman said federal law makes it hard to purge voters because the emphasis is on protecting voters’ rights.

“If you arbitrarily delete folks with limited information you run the risk of taking someone’s rights away,” he said. “Sometimes it’s best to have more people on the rolls than to remove someone who is truly eligible.”

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