Voter Rights v. Fraud: Bring on the Lawsuits

Top lawyers for the Democratic Party and Sen. Barack Obama this week filed a complaint in federal court in Michigan alleging that state Republicans were scheming to strip the right to vote from people living in homes that have been placed on foreclosure lists.

Democrats made their move after James Carabelli, the chairman of the Republican Party in Macomb County, Mich., allegedly told a locally run Web site, "We will have a list of foreclosed homes and will make sure people aren't voting from those addresses."

Carabelli has denied ever making such a statement and has asked the Michigan Messenger Web site for a retraction.

In the last two months of this tense and heated presidential race, a new season has arrived that usually brings an increase in allegations of disenfranchised voters and voter fraud, and the fanning out of an army of lawyers across the country.

Typically, as in the Michigan case, the lawyers divide neatly down party lines, with Democrats arguing that the voters of some of their key constituencies are under attack and Republicans countering that states need to be vigilant to combat instances of voter fraud.

On Wednesday, the Republican National Committee called the Michigan legal filing "reckless" and accused the Democrats of a national strategy to engage the federal courts "without factual basis."

Sean Cairncross, the RNC's chief counsel, said, "The RNC would not, has not, and will not use foreclosure lists as the basis of any challenge."

A Democratic lawyer involved in the suit said the party nevertheless plans to "quickly" continue the suit and file a motion for preliminary injunction.

In the Michigan complaint, the Democrats accuse the Republicans of a "long history" of voter suppression tactics.

The ACLU and other voting rights groups have filed suit in states including Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama targeting laws they say disenfranchise voters.

On its Web site, the RNC has a section dedicated to allegations of voting fraud. On Wednesday, the committee sent out a press release regarding a story in the New Mexico media that 1,000 new voter registration cards received in one county might be frauds.

"The season has begun," said RNC spokesman Danny Diaz.

Voting Rights

The political committees have even engaged in dueling conference calls featuring their top lawyers.

The issue escalates each election year, with experts saying that it is becoming more intense with each cycle.

Last term, it even made its way to the Supreme Court in the form of a challenge to Indiana's voter identification law, one of the strictest in the country, in a case known as Crawford v. Marion County Election Board.

The court upheld the law finding that "flagrant examples" of voter fraud have been documented "throughout this Nation's history." Justice John Paul Stevens, the author of the lead opinion, wrote, "There is no question about the legitimacy or importance of the State's interest in counting only the votes of eligible voters."

The Republican National Committee filed a brief in the case in defense of the Indiana law.

"This is not a conspiracy," wrote RNC lawyers. "Fraud and the perception of fraud in the election process erode voter confidence, casts doubt on election results" and "undermines everything the Republican Party works to accomplish."

In a footnote to its brief, the RNC wrote that the Republican Party will spend millions of dollars in the 2008 election cycle "in voter outreach and voter registration programs."

One Democratic lawyer involved in the Michigan lawsuit said that the last several elections have shown an increase in Republican challenges, though "it didn't used to happen at all."

"Republicans repeatedly say that they are sending challengers in the polls to prevent voter fraud," the lawyer said. "There is no voter fraud. And even if there were challenges, the polling place is not the place to deal with it."

One of the plaintiffs in the Michigan suit, Frances Zick, told ABC News that she was unaware of the alleged Republican threats until the issue was brought to her attention. Zick, a cashier in a supermarket in Sterling Heights, Mich., said Carabelli's allegation "makes me scared," adding, "but I'm going to vote," before referring further questions to her lawyer.

According to the complaint, Zick has received a notice that her home is going to be sold in a mortgage foreclosure sale three weeks before the election.