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This blog by Chris Kromm is cross posted from Facing South  

The Department of Justice's dubious crusade against "voter fraud " — which despite looking at millions of votes since 2002 has only netted 24 fraud convictions — isn't just a federal issue. It's also being used at the state level to push restrictive voter ID bills and — most recently in North Carolina — to stop momentum for same-day registration of voters, a popular reform that would boost voter turnout.

Last week, insiders tell us, just as a North Carolina senate committee was prepared to pass the reform (the House already has), State Auditor Les Merritt — a Republican elected in 2004 — issued a cryptic email to legislators warning that he "had information" that might cause them to think twice.

What dirt did Merritt have? We still don't know, because he refuses to release his office's full findings. But in a "preliminary report" on research the auditor's office has been doing since January — and just happened to release as the same-day registration bill came up for a vote — Merritt said he had some damning information, as the Charlotte Observer reports :

    Merritt's staff cited 24,821 invalid driver's license numbers in the voter registration database, 380 people who appear to have voted after their dates of death and others under age 18 when they voted.

Merritt's "investigation" was happening at the same time that the Department of Justice was looking into possible cases of fraud — of which no substantiated cases have been found to date.

It's probably a good thing Merritt didn't publicly release his report, because as Gary Bartlett, director of the state election board, revealed, many of the basic charges made in the preliminary report were without merit (so to speak):

    Gary Bartlett, executive director of the elections board, responded Wednesday with a stinging 10-page letter declaring many of the findings invalid. He accused Merritt's office of misleading the elections board and of rejecting its help.

    "(Y)our office appears to have a fundamental misunderstanding about the data that was reviewed or about the federal and State laws governing the voter registration process," Bartlett wrote in the letter, which he provided to lawmakers Thursday.

    For example, Bartlett said, many of the people who appear to have voted after their dates of death voted absentee and then died prior to Election Day. At least some people under 18 who voted did so legally, Bartlett said, because state law allows 17-year-olds to vote in a primary election if they will be 18 the day of the general election.

    Bartlett said the state's regular maintenance of voter rolls resulted in 725,499 names removed during a recent 19-month period. Most had been inactive, moved or died.

Most importantly, no one – neither the DOJ nor the NC state auditor — has proved that a single person has committed voting fraud, which is the only relevant fact for the NC senate to consider as it looks at same-day registration at early voting sites.

As election reform advocates point out, what's happening in North Carolina to derail same-day registration falls within a broader national pattern:

    Bob Hall, research director of Carrboro-based Democracy North Carolina, which analyzes voter data and helps register people, also said the Justice Department's analysis is flawed.

    "We're learning that this department has a record of harassing state-level officials who take their responsibility seriously and who don't act in a partisan way to depress voter registration or reduce the voting rolls," Hall said.

Merritt will have to come up with an explanation for the disputed findings by next Tuesday, when the Senate Committee on Government and Election Reform will bring him in to testify before voting on the same-day registration bill.

UPDATE: The Raleigh News & Observer amplifies on the supposed fraud around "dead voters" — no one has shown that it's related to fraud, or even that they end up counting in a race (much less swinging an election):

    Recent probes by state and federal officials of voting records have turned up a few ballots apparently cast by deceased voters. That has led to claims of voter fraud.

    But it isn't necessarily fraudulent. As Dome discovered back when he was just a  WakePol , people occasionally die after they have already cast an absentee ballot.

    Under state law , you must be eligible to vote on Election Day, and being dead makes you ineligible. But no one at the local or state level regularly checks the absentees for dead voters.

    During a recount, political opponents on both sides will often comb through the data and ask for those ballots to be disqualified. The State Board of Elections relies on that competitiveness to weed out ballots that might swing a race.

A new county-by-county analysis of voting shows that at least 2.5 million North Carolinians – two out of every five adult citizens – have not cast a ballot in the past eight years.

They didn’t vote in the 2000 or 2004 presidential elections or anytime else. Most of them are registered to vote and just never show up, but about one million are not even registered. 

Two of the largest groups of missing voters – 660,000 African Americans and 760,000 young adults age 18 to 24 – could be especially energized to participate in the May 6 presidential primary, if the pattern of other primary states holds true.     

With that many possible first-time voters, election officials are bracing for a record turnout.     

“If the current trends continue, and all indications are that they will, North Carolina could easily exceed the normal range of 16% to 31% turnout [of registered voters] in the primary election and possibly exceed a 50% turnout,” Gary Bartlett told county election officials in a memo last week.  Bartlett, executive director of the State Board of Elections, announced two grant programs to help counties equip and operate additional One-Stop Early Voting sites for the primary.     

Bartlett also said that about 64,000 people registered to vote in the first six weeks of 2008, indicating a surge in voter interest. Thirty percent of the new registrants are under age 25.

The county-by-county analysis by Democracy North Carolina shows there is plenty of room for growth.     

In some counties, including Hoke, Robeson, Duplin and Harnett, well over half the adults have not voted in a single election since at least 1999. 

In Mecklenburg, Wake, and Guilford, a total of 600,000 adults are AWOL when it comes to voting. A new law allowing registration and voting on the same day could also boost turnout in the May primary. 

People who miss the normal cutoff to register 25 days before Election Day can still go to at an Early Voting site, show a form of ID, register and vote, all at the same time. It’s important for people to know they can’t do this on Election Day itself but for many young people and others who don’t tune in until the last couple of weeks, this new law gives them a chance to participate.

The regular deadline to register is April 11.  Every county has at least one Early Voting site open Monday through Saturday, from April 17 to May 3.     

We’re concerned that counties need to open more Early Voting sites to reduce the stress of long lines on May 6. Some are doing a good job, but others need to be more aggressive about applying for the grant funds and opening more centers, especially in areas with significant concentrations of young people.     

In the past week, election administrators in Wake and Durham counties have begun planning for at least twice as many sites as they original thought were needed.  Mecklenburg, Guildford and Buncombe counties will have about 10 sites each. 

 We’d like officials in Forsyth, New Hanover, Pitt and other counties to open more sites. We can see a train wreck coming – long lines, frustrated voters, over-worked officials – and it doesn’t need to happen.

Other findings in the Democracy North Carolina analysis include:     

• Overall: Statewide, a total of 1,650,000 registered voters did not bother to vote in any election from January 2000 to December 2007.  In addition, 1,320,000 adults age 18 and up are not even registered. Even assuming that 400,000 of that number are not citizens, the total number of missing voters is 2.5 million out of the 6.5 million adult citizens in North Carolina on Jan. 1, 2008 (6.9 million adult residents minus 400,000 non-citizens = 6.5 million adult citizens).     

• Black Voters: Statewide, blacks are registered to vote at about the same rate as whites, but they vote less frequently. For example, turnout among white registered voters was 66% in the last presidential election (Nov. 2004), but only 59% among black registered voters. While 29% of all registered voters did not vote at all from 2000 through 2007, the figure for black registered voters was 35%.

• Young Voters: More than 40% of the unregistered adults in two dozen counties are age 18 to 24. Statewide, this group makes up 35% of the unregistered voting-age population.  The voter turnout rate for this age group is also notoriously low; it was 52% of those registered in the November 2004 election.     

• Women Voters: Women are more likely to register, and vote, than men. Statewide, 86% of women are registered compared to 75% of men. In the November 2004 election, the turnout rate for women exceeded the rate for men by at least three percentage points in Bladen, Cumberland, Durham, Edgecombe, Pasquotank, Sampson, and Wilson counties.     

• NC Natives: Just over half of the registered voters in North Carolina (52%) were born in the state. Native-born voters range were under 40% in fast growing Brunswick, Dare, Union, and several large urban counties, but they make up 80% or more of registered voters in Bertie, Bladen, Greene, Lenoir, Martin, Montgomery, Wilkes, and Yadkin counties.

• New Voters: The five counties with the highest percent of voters who registered in 2006 or 2007 are Brunswick, Union, Hoke, Pender, and Davie. 
  

SEE AN EXCEL FILE WITH DATA AT:  

http://www.democracy-nc.org/improving/2008/missvtchrt.xls