Voter registration complications in Missouri

Monday, October 25, 2004

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Some Missourians who signed up to vote at festivals or grocery stores or with door-to-door canvassers may be in for a surprise come Election Day. They might not really be registered to vote.

Missouri law does not specifically require people conducting voter registration drives to turn over the registration cards to election officials.

So "there's the potential that lots of people who think they're registered voters are going to find out that the registering agent did not properly submit their paperwork," said Secretary of State Matt Blunt.

Blunt's office has not heard any complaints of groups either accidentally or intentionally failing to turn in voter registration cards. But it's a possibility, because complaints have arisen elsewhere.

In Oregon, Secretary of State Bill Bradbury opened an investigation after receiving complaints, including one made via a TV report in which a paid canvasser said he had been told to accept voter registrations only from Republicans and that he might destroy those of Democrats.

Nevada authorities also are looking into whether any laws were violated after a former employee of Voter Outreach of America told reporters he had seen his boss shred eight to 10 Democratic voter registration forms. The head of the group has denied any shredding occurred.

Missouri law requires government-run voter registration sites to send the applications to local election authorities within five business days. But the law makes no mention of private groups, such as the Republican or Democratic parties, unions or independent entities such as America Coming Together (known as ACT) and the Missouri Progressive Vote Coalition, which claim to have registered thousands of voters this year.

Indeed, voter registration is at an all-time high in Missouri, at 4.2 million people -- making it hard to imagine that anyone had failed to turn in voter registration cards for a large number of people.

Employees of ACT said it was their understanding that the law did require them to turn in the voter registration cards they collect. And they have done so in all cases, said spokeswoman Sara Howard.

St. Louis attorney Rob Heggie, who has represented ACT and Democrats on election law matters, said he advises voter registration canvassers that they must turn in all applications, just as government employees have to do.

"I've always taken the position that applies to everybody," Heggie said. "You can't go out and get an application from somebody and not turn it in. It's fraud."

Blunt's legal counsel, Terry Jarrett, said it's possible that someone intentionally destroying voter registration cards could be prosecuted under a general fraud law. There also is an election law making it illegal to impede or prevent by fraud the free exercise of a voter -- something which potentially could be applied to such cases, he said.

Blunt, the Republican nominee for governor, has been criticized repeatedly by Democratic challenger Claire McCaskill and her supporters for his interpretation of some election laws. For example, Blunt's office asserted that voters whose eligibility is questioned should be able to cast provisional ballots only from their assigned polling places -- not anywhere else in their county.

A judge essentially upheld Blunt's interpretation, so long as poll workers direct voters casting provisional ballots to the right polling places.

When it comes to private voter registration groups, Blunt said he's not sure there can -- or should -- be a law compelling them to turn in every registration card they collect. He gives this hypothetical example: What if a Ku Klux Klan member wants to register to vote through an African-American group conducting a voter drive?

"I don't believe an organization striving for racial equality should be compelled to register voters who are exactly opposed," Blunt said.

To avoid confusion on Election Day, Blunt encourages everyone who registered to vote through a private group to check in advance with their local election authorities to see if they actually are registered.

If they're not, it's too late to act. The registration deadline for the Nov. 2 election has passed. And any individuals not on the voter rolls -- even if they intended to be -- will not be able to vote.


EDITOR'S NOTE: Capitol Correspondent David A. Lieb covers Missouri government and politics for The Associated Press.

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