Deceptive tactics inflate GOP voter registration
Canvassers hired by a leading Republican group allegedly misled Oregon college students while gathering signatures
Saturday, October 30, 2004
EDWARD WALSH OregonLive
At 11:30 p.m. on Oct. 12, Rori Smith, a Republican Party official temporarily assigned to Oregon, and several other GOP operatives strode into the Barracuda nightclub in downtown Portland. They were on official party business.
Smith was delivering several thousand voter registration cards, all of them ostensibly new Republican voters, to a special -off point set up at the nightclub during extended registration hours on the last day to register to vote in this year's election.
But apparently unknown at the time to Smith and other GOP officials, it soon began to emerge that some of those cards the number is not known were signed by young people who were deceived into registering as a Republican, or who may have registered as an independent or a Democrat and then had the registration switched to Republican by someone else before the card was turned in.
The registration forms were valid and newly registered voters received ballots. But some of them were the product of deceptive tactics, used on several college and university campuses around the state, by canvassers working for Sproul & Associates, a Phoenix, Ariz.-based company that was hired by the Republican National Committee to boost GOP registration in Oregon and several other states.
In interviews, students at Mt. Hood and Chemeketa community colleges, Western Oregon University and the University of Oregon, all told similar stories: They were approached on campus and asked to sign a petition, often urging lower automobile insurance rates for students, and then asked to sign or initial a second document, which turned out to be a voter registration card.
Many of the students were urged to mark Republican as their party affiliation; others were told to leave the party affiliation section blank but to put their initials next to Republican on that part of the form.
Many of the students already were registered voters. Some students didn't realize they were registering to vote, or that their party affiliation was about to change.
"We've heard from students who felt they were tricked into it," said John Wykoff, executive director of the Oregon Student Association, a coalition of student governments at state universities and community colleges. "In some cases, (the canvassers) said, 'I don't get paid if you don't register as a Republican.' In some complaints, folks didn't realize these were voter registration forms."
There is no evidence that officials of the Oregon Republican Party sanctioned these practices or even knew about them. "It doesn't do either party any good to register people under a pretext. All it does is offend them," said state GOP Chairman Kevin Mannix.
Yier Shi, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee in Washington, said he did not know the details of the Oregon registration drive but that the national party "has a zero tolerance policy against inappropriate voter registration and voter fraud."
Nathan Sproul, whose company conducted the registration drive, did not respond to calls seeking comment. His firm has been accused of using similar tactics involving bogus petitions at colleges in Pennsylvania, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
In an earlier interview with The Oregonian, Sproul confirmed that his canvassers are paid a "bounty" of extra money for registering Republicans but said he did not think that was a problem.
"We have extensive safety controls to work against those types of things," he said.
Some Democrats charged that inflating the rolls of registered Republicans could serve as an indirect "voter suppression" tool because registered Republicans are unlikely to be called by Democratic operatives and urged to cast their ballots.
But state and local elections officials said they did not think there would be much if any impact on voting. All registered voters receive the same ballot and are free to vote for any candidate, regardless of party affiliation, they noted.
Nonetheless, the use of phony petitions to boost GOP registration underscored the high stakes in this election during the final, frantic days before the Oct. 12 registration deadline.
"Don't worry," canvassers say
Colleen Dusenbery, 18, a freshman at Chemeketa Community College in Salem, discovered that her registration had been changed from nonaffiliated to Republican when she received a ballot with her name misspelled.
She said she had been approached on campus by a man who asked her to sign a petition for lower auto insurance rates.
"I signed it, and there was a piece of paper below it," Dusenbery said. "He said it was to verify that I was a registered voter. He said to initial in a certain spot and sign it. He told me not to check any of the political parties. He said don't worry about that. I initialed next to the Republican Party spot of the card."
Dusenbery said that when she went to the Polk County Courthouse to correct the misspelling she was shown the registration card. "It was my signature and Republican Party was checked and I know I didn't check it," she said.
Dusenbery's sister, Cynthia, 22, a junior at Western Oregon University, had a similar experience. She said she signed a petition for lower car insurance rates and another document that she didn't realize was a voter registration card.
The canvasser said " 'Don't worry about party affiliation. Don't check off the boxes, just put your initials by Republican,' " she said.
Cynthia Dusenbery said that when she later saw the registration card, "Republican was checked off. I didn't check it. It was the card with my initials. I recognized it. I don't know why they did it."
In Eugene, Stephanie Erickson, 21, a junior at the University of Oregon, said that she was approached by two young men with a petition protesting violence against women and children.
"The man said he was with a Republican organization and that in order for my signature to count I had to register as a Republican," she recalled. Erickson, who was already registered as a Democrat, added, "I wasn't sure what to do, but felt becoming a Republican for a week was worth it if my signature would count."
At Mt. Hood Community College, freshman Krystal Young, 18, said a woman asked her to sign a petition against child abuse and sign a voter registration form on which Republican was already marked as the party affiliation. "It switched me from Democrat to Republican," Young said. "She said it didn't matter in terms of my vote."
Erin Coyne, 20, a junior at Western Oregon, was surprised to get a ballot from Polk County because she was registered to vote as an independent in Washington County. Then she recalled signing a lower car insurance petition on campus and being asked to sign a voter registration card and put her initials next to the party affiliation section.
"I didn't think anything about it," she said.
Initials baffle elections officials
One aspect of the Republican registration drive has continued to baffle state and local elections officials the widespread placement of voters' initials next to the party affiliation box on the cards. The initials were not required and served no purpose, officials said.
Anne Martens, spokeswoman for Democratic Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, was assigned to accept last minute registrations at the Barracuda nightclub on Oct. 12. The nightclub was one of three special -off points set up under a program dubbed "Midnight Madness," under which voter registration forms were accepted until midnight Oct. 12, seven hours after the 5 p.m. deadline elsewhere in the state.
According to Martens, the vast majority of registration forms delivered that night by Smith, the GOP official, were initialed, and about half of them included a change in party affiliation to Republican.
This has raised the possibility that canvassers or others checked the Republican box themselves and in some cases crossed out different party affiliations after persuading the prospective new voter to initial the form.
But Martens said the initialing and changes in party affiliation were not grounds to invalidate the registrations. "There's no way for us to tell if it's an alteration by another person or a registrant changing his mind," she said.
Bradbury's office has begun an investigation of Sproul's voter registration activities in Oregon. Kevin Neely, spokesman for Attorney General Hardy Myers, said that altering a voter's party affiliation or using "undue influence" to get a person to register were violations of Oregon election law.
Whatever the outcome of the investigation, Wykoff, the head of the statewide student association group, said he worried about potential damage to the integrity of the voter registration process.
"The thing that kind of bothers me about this," he said, "is that we have all these groups, from the College Republicans to OSA, doing it the right way, being honest about voter registration, and when you have folks come to college campuses doing it dishonestly it hurts everyone. It makes us all look bad."