WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Democrats and Republicans sparred Wednesday over whether voter ID laws, attempts to purge voter rolls and restricted early voting were legitimate efforts to stop fraud or Republican strategies to hold down Democratic votes.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. and former Gov. Charlie Crist, a onetime Republican who recently turned Democrat, said the state GOP aimed their efforts at Hispanics and African-Americans. They cited as one example the elimination of early voting on the Sunday before the election, when members of those groups historically vote after church.
At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the panel, defended efforts that he said were aimed at voter fraud. He was backed by two Republican secretaries of state, Matt Schultz of Iowa and Ken Bennett of Arizona.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said there were only minuscule percentages of voters who were found guilty of fraud.
Bennett said there were 15 cases of ineligible voters who also cast ballots in other states but added that counties removed hundreds monthly from voting rolls after jury forms showed they were ineligible for juries and voting.
Schultz said he found only six voters who were not citizens, but added he had been trying unsuccessfully for months to get the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to give him access to a citizenship database.
Grassley said efforts to find ineligible voters were "common sense measures to prevent voter fraud."
Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a Democrat in the South Carolina legislature, said the state's attempt to impose a voter ID law would have suppressed the African-American vote, because "a voter residing in the easternmost part of my district would have to incur the costs of traveling approximately 70 miles roundtrip to the county seat to obtain a photo ID. Some of my constituents live even further away from the county seat."
Only intervention by the Justice Department under the Voting Rights Act and a federal court panel prevented the voter ID requirement from being implemented in November, she said.
The hearing was the first post-election look at voting problems last November by a polarized and gridlocked Congress.
The problems went well beyond lengthy waits. A rise in the number of provisional ballots delayed the results for days in some cases. The growing photo ID requirements placed on voters by Republican-controlled state legislatures sparked intense partisan fights. And the time allowed for early voting was too short for many, too long for others.
But with Congress expected to adjourn within days, any focus on possible fixes won't occur until next year — if at all. The 1965 law that influenced the voter ID law in South Carolina is the federal government's most potent weapon against racial discrimination in elections, requiring all or parts of 16 states with a history of discrimination in voting to get U.S. approval before making election changes.
There were voting issues in November in numerous states.
Some Miami-Dade County, Fla., voters, in line at the 7 p.m. poll closing time, didn't cast their ballots until after 1 a.m. Democratic operatives brought pizza to keep them from leaving.
There were long lines in several urban Tennessee counties and in South Carolina. In some places in Virginia, final votes were not cast until after 11 p.m. Long lines also were reported in Rhode Island, Montana and other states.
Some California polls did not open on time because election workers overslept. At least 19 polling places in Hawaii ran out of paper ballots. Some Pennsylvania voters were given incorrect information about whether they needed photo identification; most didn't.
Edward Foley, a law professor at Ohio State University and director of the law school's election program, said there's a potential disaster lurking in the increase in provisional ballots provided to voters whose eligibility is questioned.
"One should have faith in the system," Foley said. "Rules should not be set for one party for its own advantage. What surfaced between 2010 and 2012 was use of the legislative process for what appears to be partisan advantage that we hadn't seen previously."
Richard Hasen, a professor of law and political science at the University of California-Irvine, said the number of provisional ballots can be reduced by improving the voter registration system. He said the system is poorly managed by many states.
"The federal government can provide carrots" in the form of federal grants, Hasen said. "It's a small price to pay to avoid election meltdowns."
Ohio State University election project: www.electionlaw.osu.edu
Senate Judiciary Committee: http://www.judiciary.senate.gov/