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Bush Intervenes in Ohio Voter Dispute

By Jason Leopold
October 25, 2008

In a déjà vu moment from Campaign 2006, President George W. Bush again is asking his Attorney General to launch an investigation into the registration of hundreds of thousands of new voters, many of whom are expected to vote Democratic.

Bush forwarded to Attorney General Michael Mukasey a Republican request that he intervene in the battleground state of Ohio to force 200,000 new voters to either verify the information on their registration forms or cast provisional ballots, which are often thrown out after the voter leaves the polling place.

Similarly, two years ago when Bush feared Democratic victories in congressional races, the President “spoke with Attorney General [Alberto] Gonzales in October 2006 about their concerns over voter fraud,” according to a Justice Department Inspector General’s reported released earlier this month.

In 2006, the White House and some congressional Republicans also put pressure on the Justice Department and U.S. Attorneys around the country to bring last-minute indictments against pro-Democratic voter registration drives.

When some federal prosecutors balked because they found a lack of evidence, they were purged as part of an unprecedented firing of nine U.S. Attorneys, who were deemed not “loyal Bushies.”

That “prosecutor-gate” scandal led to the resignations of several senior White House and Justice Department officials, including Attorney General Gonzales. President Bush then asserted broad executive privilege to block testimony by Karl Rove and other top White House officials.

Now, two years later, Bush is again putting the Justice Department in position to act on a new round of “voter fraud” suspicions pushed by Republican leaders and his favored successor, Sen. John McCain.

While the goal in 2006 was to salvage Republican control of Congress, Bush’s latest move appears aimed at keeping the White House in Republican hands.

Federal intervention – if ordered by Mukasey – could wreak havoc at polling places across Ohio, with Republican operatives using data on mismatches to challenge thousands of voters and causing long lines in Democratic strongholds.

House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, sent a letter to Bush asking for his extraordinary intervention after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to get involved in the Ohio dispute.

“Unless action is taken by the [Justice] Department immediately, thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands of names whose information has not been verified through the [Help America Vote Act] procedures mandated by Congress will remain on the voter rolls during the Nov. 4 election. …

“There is a significant risk if not a certainty, that unlawful votes will be cast and counted. Given the Election Day is less than two weeks away, immediate action by the Department is not only warranted, but also crucial.”

On Friday, White House spokesman Carlton Carroll said Bush had referred Boehner’s letter “to the Department of Justice for their review.”

Little Evidence

However, independent studies have shown that phony registrations rarely result in illegally cast ballots because there are so many other safeguards built into the system.

For instance, from October 2002 to September 2005, a total of 70 people were convicted for federal election related crimes, according to figures compiled by the New York Times last year. Only 18 of those were for ineligible voting.

In recent years, federal prosecutors reached similar conclusions despite pressure from the Bush administration to lodge “election fraud” charges against voter registration groups seen as bringing more Democratic voters into the democratic process.

Federal investigative guidelines also discourage election-related probes before ballots are cast because of the likelihood that the inquiries will become politicized and might influence the election outcomes.

“In most cases, voters should not be interviewed, or other voter-related investigation done, until after the election is over,” according to the Justice Department’s guidelines for election offenses.

In 2004, Republican-controlled Ohio was one state where voters complained that their votes cast on electronic voting machines for Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, were recorded for Bush.

Additionally, tens of thousands of voters were purged from voter registration rolls. Early exit polls showed Kerry leading Bush in Ohio, but Bush carried the state by 119,000 votes.

At issue now is a federal law – the Help America Vote Act, which was passed when Republicans dominated Congress in 2002 – that requires states to verify the eligibility of voters.

Lawsuit Filed

The Ohio Republican Party filed a lawsuit last month against Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat, claiming that voter registration information for hundreds of thousands of new voters did not match official government data, such as Social Security records and driver’s licenses.

But in court filings, GOP officials did not provide documentary evidence to back up those claims. Voting advocates also note that many mismatches can be irrelevant, such as the use of a middle name in one form but not another or a typographical error in a database.

Still, Republicans faulted Brunner for her “steadfast refusal to provide the HAVA ‘mismatch’ data to the county boards of elections in a meaningful way.” They accused Brunner of violating federal election laws by “actively working to conceal fraudulent activity.”

Brunner said the lawsuit was “politically motivated” and could result in disenfranchisement of voters because of "misstated technical information or glitches in databases. …

“Many of those discrepancies bear no relationship whatsoever to a voter's eligibility to vote a regular, as opposed to a provisional, ballot,'' Brunner said, adding that mismatches “may well be used at the county level unnecessarily to challenge fully qualified voters and severely disrupt the voting process.”

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s ruling that had favored the Republicans. The high court said lawsuits “brought by a private litigant" could not be used to force states to abide by federal laws.

Boehner then sought, via the letter to Bush, to have Mukasey force Brunner to comply with HAVA’s requirements.

Sen. McCain also has elevated the issue of irregularities in registration forms, saying during the third presidential debate that the grassroots group ACORN “is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.”

Although McCain’s comment was largely hyperbole, it set the stage for widespread Republican challenges to new voters, what GOP critics say is just the latest chapter of a long history of Republican “voter suppression.”

Recent investigations launched against ACORN – now including the reported involvement of the FBI – have raised other concerns, especially that Republicans are flogging this issue in an effort to stir up anger, to revive McCain’s campaign, and to intimidate new voters.

Ohio’s 20 electoral votes could be crucial for McCain to achieve a comeback victory over his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, who is leading in Ohio by five to seven percentage points, according to most polls.

Republican success in disqualifying large numbers of new voters – while creating long lines in Democratic precincts – could tip Ohio into McCain’s column on Election Night.

On Friday, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said he was "disappointed" that Bush "chose to interject partisan politics into the election. My confidence in Secretary Brunner's work remains unchanged. She will ensure that every eligible Ohio vote is counted."

Brown asked Mukasey not to intervene in the matter.

Jason Leopold has launched a new Web site, The Public Record, at

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