WASHINGTON — Earlier this year, Ohio election officials sent notices marked "Do not forward" to the state's registered voters, alerting them to the March primary.
To the surprise of voting rights activists, 573,444 notices were returned as undeliverable in five counties alone, including the urban areas of Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati.
The heavy return rate alarmed liberal activists. They feared that numerous voters -- many of them young and minorities -- could lose their right to vote in November, perhaps because they had moved and failed to update their records.
Since about 1 in 7 Americans changes residence every year, the large volume of returned mail also hints at a potential problem in voter rolls nationwide.
In Ohio, the large amount of returned mail set off a three-way tussle -- involving Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat; the leaders of the state Republican Party; and two voting rights groups -- over how to handle possible discrepancies in the voting records.
Disputes over voter records could loom large in Ohio and other battleground states, where the 2008 presidential race is likely to be decided. In nearly every state, citizens who want to vote Nov. 4 must register in advance, and the data on file must be up to date.
This year, it is easy to check that information. In the past, counties maintained their own voter rolls. But when Congress adopted the Help America Vote Act after the Florida election debacle in 2000, it told states to create a computerized database of all their voters by 2006.
The databases have triggered -- or perhaps magnified -- disputes over the voter rolls.
What, for instance, should be done if a computer check turns up a voter who appears to be registered at two addresses? What about a newly registered voter whose address does not match other state records, including the driver's license?
Florida's election officials announced last week that they would enforce the state's "no-match, no-vote" law by not counting the ballots of new voters unless they cleared up any discrepancy between the registration form and other state records.
Two weeks ago, Ohio sent out another notice to registered voters, and voting rights advocates fear that the names on the returned mail will give GOP officials a long, ready-made list of voters to challenge.
In Michigan, Republican leaders denied a blogger's report that they planned to use foreclosure notices to challenge voters -- but they did say that they planned to challenge voters whose addresses did not match records.
"This will be a very big deal in the few states where the margin is very close," said Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, a project of the Pew Center on the States that tracks states' election rules. "I don't see any evidence of a deliberate partisan purge of the voter rolls in any state. But there is a concern that a large number of voters could be challenged, and the impact will be magnified if the outcome depends on a few thousand votes."
In Ohio, both parties are working hard to register voters. "We are expecting an 80% turnout," Brunner said.
A former state judge, Brunner ran for secretary of state after the 2004 controversy over her Republican predecessor, Kenneth Blackwell, who served as the state's election chief at the same time he co-chaired President Bush's reelection campaign in Ohio. He also took a strong stand against counting the votes of people who cast ballots in the wrong precinct.
Upon her election in 2006, on the same day that Blackwell was soundly defeated in his run for governor, Brunner pledged to ensure that "Ohio elections are free, fair, open and honest." This year, she said, "every eligible voter who wants to vote should be able to do so freely."
But she is also charged with administering the state's strict voter registration rules. One requires that a notice be sent to all voters two months before an election, a notice that is not to be forwarded.
In August, lawyers for the Advancement Project, a legal and public policy group committed to racial justice, and Project Vote, which aids in the registration of low-income and minority voters, said these notices "threaten to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Ohio voters in the November 2008 election." The records of undeliverable notices are public, and "we anticipate that significant numbers of minority voters will be included on the county-generated caging lists," they said in a letter to Brunner.
Vote "caging" refers to the practice of sending mailings to certain groups of voters and setting aside the mail that is returned. In some states, the names on those envelopes have been compiled by party officials who use them to challenge the ballots of those voters.