Parties at odds over more election changes

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On election night, President Barack Obama thanked voters who braved long lines at polling places throughout the country.

People waited as long as seven hours in some precincts in Florida, with some still waiting to cast a ballot long past midnight. In other states, such as Virginia and Maryland, lines also stretched into hours.

"By the way, we have to fix that," Mr. Obama said.

But with the presidential election over, comprehensive overhauls to the patchwork of state election laws remain a distant goal. More than a decade after the 2000 Florida vote-count debacle, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee last week spotlighted complaints about the casting and counting of votes that persist despite a package of post-2000 adjustments.

The hearing focused on charges of voter suppression and questions on why the vote counting stretched on for days in states including Florida and Arizona. Pennsylvania's contentious voter identification law and similar measures in Arizona, Texas and South Carolina were also discussed.

The most vivid accusations of voter suppression came in the testimony of former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist. The Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat accused his successor, Gov. Rick Scott, and a GOP-controlled legislature of a multipronged attack on voter rights through a legislative package that was designed to place curbs on registration and curtail the early voting that has become a prominent part of the state's voting culture.

Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Fla., joined in the denunciation of the changed voting procedures in his home state.

"Florida's 2011 election law changes were politically motivated and clearly designed to disenfranchise likely Democratic voters," he said. "Leading up to the 2012 election, at least a dozen state legislatures controlled by Republicans approved new obstacles to voting as part of the campaign linked to the American Legislative Exchange Council, which receives substantial funding from the Koch brothers."

He referred to the billionaire political activists who have donated to a wide variety of conservative causes.

Mr. Nelson described a deposition in a Florida lawsuit in which the general counsel of the state Republican Party acknowledged that he had drafted the election law changes later approved by the legislature in consultation with party leaders.

In addition to cutting the number of days and hours of early voting, the Florida initiatives, as first enacted, imposed strict new rules on voter registration along with substantial penalties for violating them. Challenged in court, the state was forced to back down on the strict registration changes as well as on a planned purge of voter rolls. But the curtailment of early voting remained and was blamed in part for the long lines bemoaned by the re-elected president.

"The outcome of these changes was obvious," Mr. Crist said. "Florida, which four years earlier was a model of efficiency, became once again a late-night TV joke."

Citing Mike Turzai

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the Judiciary Committee chairman, referred to a controversial statement by Pennsylvania state Rep. Mike Turzai: "Before the election, Pennsylvania's House Republican leader said they passed Pennsylvania's new voter ID law in order to 'allow' Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney to win the state. These are not good enough reasons to take away the right to vote and they are shameful."

Mr. Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, has repeatedly dismissed suggestions of a partisan motivation in the legislation, which he and other Republicans sold as an effort to combat voter fraud.

Asked to respond to Mr. Leahy's comment, Mr. Turzai said, "We want to protect the integrity of every person's vote. The key is you want everyone to participate fully in the electoral process and you want to make sure there is integrity in the process."

During the hearing, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, disputed assertions by voter ID critics that the problem such legislation ostensibly addresses -- vote fraud -- is extremely rare.

"Fraud does exist; it is a fact of life and it will be discussed at this hearing," he said, "and it will only get worse if the only response is denial."

During the hearing, Republican elections officials from Iowa and Arizona reported that they had, in fact, prosecuted a variety of individuals for improper voting -- six in Iowa, for voting despite the fact that they were not citizens, and more than a dozen in Arizona for casting votes in two states in the same election. But Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., maintained that those numbers were minuscule compared to the total number of votes cast in those states in recent years.

Mr. Crist urged the senators to "think long and hard about establishing some national standards that would ensure lengthy in-person early voting, well as commonsense provisions such as same day voter registration and allowing voters to vote at the precinct most convenient to them."

But the prospects for any action in a divided Congress seem slim.

David C. Kimball, a political scientist at the University of Missouri, St. Louis and an expert on election laws, was skeptical of the chances of new federal steps to improve voting procedures.

"Any action is more likely at the state level," he said. "I'm not optimistic about Congress or the federal government doing anything.

"Election laws have become a zero-sum game for the parties," he added. "Neither trusts the other. If an election law is passed by Republicans, Democrats assume it's for partisan reasons."

After a tangled legal battle, Pennsylvania's voter ID law remains on the books, although a judge suspended its enforcement for the November election. In theory, it will go into effect for May's primary, but that could change. Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson, who has been hearing the challenge to the law, has signaled that he will schedule a trial sometime next summer on a request for a permanent injunction against the measure.

Ron Ruman, press secretary for the Department of State, which supervised Pennsylvania elections, said the department is awaiting more guidance from the court.

"At the moment, we're really waiting to see what will happen with the court case; [the judge] is likely to make a decision at some point on whether the law will be in effect for the primary," he said.

Even though its enforcement was temporarily enjoined for the November contest, the voter ID law was an apparent source of confusion. The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a ballot protection group, reported numerous problems in the state, some related to and some independent of the law.

According to the group's report, some poll workers were confused about the law's suspended status. Separately, they said, "at the start of Election Day, it became apparent that unprecedented numbers of registered voters could not be found in poll books across Pennsylvania."

In Pennsylvania, "there were a lot of issues across the state with the state's voter ID law," said Eric Marshall of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights at a panel discussion on election procedures sponsored by the Pew Center on the States earlier this month in Washington, D.C. "A lot of it was confusion. We don't think the state did what it should to educate people about the law."

Pennsylvania not such a mess

Still, Pennsylvania voters were spared anything like the long lines and confusion in Florida and Virginia. The average wait reported by Pennsylvania voters was under 10 minutes, about in the middle of the pack compared to other states, according to a nationwide poll on voting day experiences discussed by Charles Stewart, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at the Pew event.

Not surprisingly, Florida voters faced the longest lines, an average of more than 40 minutes. And Virginia, another closely watched battleground state, was fourth in longest average lines. But the second and third longest were found in Maryland and the District of Columbia, jurisdictions controlled by Democrats and not considered presidential battlegrounds.

Mr. Stewart said that his preliminary review of the poll's data showed no clear correlation between battleground status and voters' waiting times.

The numbers did show that minority voters reported longer waiting times than whites in both early and Election Day voting. The poll also suggested that while GOP lawmakers may or may not have been seeking partisan advantage in the spate of new voter ID requirements, they were following the wishes of their constituents, particularly in their Republican base. Voter ID laws are popular, earning majority support from voters of both parties.

Mr. Stewart's data also suggested that the perception of the need for stricter voter scrutiny is significantly higher among Republicans. Among Democrats, 76 percent said they were confident that there vote was accurately counted, compared to just 53 percent of Republicans. For Democrats, that was about the same confidence level as found in 2008. The 2008 Republicans were only slightly less likely to be confident that their votes were counted -- 69 percent. But the 2012 figure marked a steep erosion in GOP confidence over the last four years.

Mr. Stewart also noted that Republicans were much more likely to think that non-citizens were voting and that voter fraud of all types was a problem.

nation - electionspresident

Politics Editor James O'Toole: jotoole@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1562.


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