A battle over voter registration in America

Ewen MacAskill

Washington: While much of the attention in the U.S. election focuses on the daily verbal clashes between John McCain and Barack Obama, a battle is being fought with as much intensity on the ground involving tens of thousands of lawyers and campaign staff.

In courtrooms in Ohio, Indiana, Louisiana, Georgia, Michigan, Florida, Wisconsin and other states, lawyers representing Democrats and civil liberties groups are locked in fights with Republicans over who is allowed to vote.

The Republicans say they are only trying to prevent voter fraud. The Democrats, burnt by what happened in Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004, say they are trying to ensure the Republicans do not steal the election by making it difficult for poor whites, African-Americans, the young and other potential Democratic voters to cast their ballots.

If Mr. Obama is heading for a landslide as the polls suggest, the issue could be academic in terms of the final result. But if the poll gap narrows over the next few weeks it could be critical. An academic study of the 2000 vote estimated that two million people were not allowed to cast their ballots, more than those who lost their votes through the much-publicised faulty voting machines.

Laughlin McDonald, who takes the lead on voting rights for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is at the forefront of the registration battles, has said it is possible that registration challenges by Republicans could match or outstrip those in 2000 and 2004. The increased interest in the election because of Mr. Obama on the part of African-Americans and the young could result in the biggest turnout in U.S. election history and also increase the scope for voter suppression.

“There always is a problem with voter registration but we are seeing more of it than in the past ... I can only say we’ve gotten more calls and are investigating more cases than before,” said Mr. McDonald, author of several books on voting rights.

Voting mechanics

In the U.S. the mechanics of voting is not in party hands but is left to state governments and the parties in power often exploit this advantage. Democrats claim that rules introduced since 2004 in Republican-run Georgia, Indiana and Florida require specific pieces of ID that are unnecessary given there is little recent history of double-voting. They say the changes are politically motivated, aimed at African-Americans, Latinos, the young and other groups that tend to vote Democrat.

Indiana and Georgia are asking for driving licences that include photographs, but that could discriminate against people without cars. A recent study found that while 80 per cent of Americans have cars, only 22 per cent of African-Americans do.

There is the prospect on election day, as a result of the heightened interest, of huge queues, and this could be exacerbated by Republican activists mounting challenges over IDs. Lengthy queues could dissuade some from staying to vote. In 2004, some people had to queue in African-American neighbourhoods for two to three hours in Ohio, a state that George Bush won by a slim margin.

There have been several successful legal challenges in Ohio this year, including one last month that overturned a 2006 law that required a piece of registered mail to be sent to every voter in the state. Mail was not forwarded and anyone whose name appeared on the list as mail returned could be challenged on voting day, a process known as cageing. If it had been allowed to stand an estimated 6,00,000 people would have been disenfranchised.

One of the big demographic groups being targeted across the U.S. is university students, among whom Mr. Obama enjoys support over Mr. McCain of at least two to one. Given potential confusion over whether they vote in the state in which they study or are from originally, there is a danger many will find themselves purged from voter lists. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008

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