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Judge tosses Wis. AG's suit demanding voter checks

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Associated Press and Gazette staff
October 24, 2008
— Rock County Clerk Lori Stottler was in her office early this morning, a day after a judge threw out a lawsuit by Wisconsin's attorney general demanding that state elections officials confirm hundreds of thousands of voters' identities before Election Day.

Stottler and her staff have plenty more to do in the six working days before the Nov. 4 election than cross-checking the validity of 92,000 registered voters in Rock County.


Dane County Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi ruled Thursday that neither federal nor state law makes the checks Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen seeks a condition for voting. She said Van Hollen has no standing to sue and should have made a complaint to the state Government Accountability Board rather than going to court.


"We're very relieved," Stottler said. "Voters should be relieved, too. If they voted last year or this year and didn't have a problem, then they won't have a problem this year.


"There should be no cause for concern, no cause for fear."


Van Hollen spokesman Kevin St. John said the state Department of Justice plans to appeal, perhaps directly to the state Supreme Court. The agency will continue to pursue the case beyond Election Day if it must because an accurate list of registered voters is crucial to future elections, he said.


"The attorney general believes that he has the ability and the authority, even the duty, to enforce state election law in state court," St. John said.


Van Hollen, a Republican and co-chair of GOP presidential candidate John McCain's Wisconsin campaign, argued that the federal Help America Vote Act requires the accountability board to check the names of everyone registered to vote since Jan. 1, 2006, against driver's license and Social Security data and remove any ineligible voters from the rolls.


The state Republican Party joined the lawsuit, asking that any non-matches be red-flagged as needing identification at the polls.


Stottler said Rock County and its municipal elections officials have been proactive in making sure that data entered to local poll lists is accurate and that voter registrations have been thoroughly reviewed.


Local voters, she said, will get one vote and won't show up on duplicate poll lists.


The accountability board says it couldn't get its cross-check software online until August, when preliminary runs revealed a 22 percent non-match rate. Most of those non-matches resulted from typos or other innocuous differences between the databases, board staff said.


The board ordered local election clerks to cross-check only voters who register from Aug. 6 onward and let non-matches vote without consequence.


The board argued, and the judge agreed, that the Help America Vote Act doesn't say what states should do with anyone whose information doesn't match.


Sumi said the board used the discretionary power it was granted by the Legislature when it decided to impose checks on only new registrants. She said only the U.S. attorney general can bring a court order to enforce HAVA, and that anyone else with a complaint, including Van Hollen and the state GOP, must make an administrative appeal directly to state elections officials.


Government Accountability Board attorney Lester Pines said Sumi was "exactly correct on every single point."


Wisconsin Republican Party chairman Reince Priebus called the ruling disappointing. He said it raises the possibility that Wisconsin won't have a fair election.


"It's looking worse by the minute, I guess," Priebus said.


State Democratic Party Chairman Joe Wineke called Sumi's decision strong.


"What are you going to appeal?" he said. "Appeal to the Republican base, I guess."


Democrats have accused Van Hollen and Republicans of trying to disenfranchise voters and keep turnout low. St. John has repeatedly denied any partisan motivation, saying the attorney general wants only to enforce the law. Republicans have said they are trying to protect the integrity of the election.



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