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Felons slip through the net of voter registration rules
Nevada county's struggles echoed across the nation

By Michael Martinez and Geoff Dougherty, Tribune staff reporters. Michael Martinez reported from Las Vegas and Geoff Dougherty reported from Chicago
Published October 31, 2004

LAS VEGAS Shuttling frenetically from desk to desk, Clark County election official Catherine Smith was racking up another 12-hour day during Nevada's early voting last week as an investigator on the front lines of registration fraud in this year's presidential election.

This month alone, the elections supervisor found 805 felons who appeared to be illegal registrants, her second largest catch of possibly improper voters since 1994 changes in national election laws.

The discovery of possible illegal and fraudulent registration, coming on the heels of huge and expensive efforts by both parties to register voters, augurs a contentious aftermath to the election. That may be particularly true in swing states like Nevada, where attorneys for both parties are gathering and suggesting post-Election Day legal challenges.

Smith's inquiry led to the purging of the felons unless they could prove, as some did, that their civil rights had been restored in Nevada or their convictions were from a state with no voting restrictions on felons.

Make-or-break figures

Her computerized dragnet identified the 805 individuals this month and 63 more in September, a seemingly small number compared with the more than 800,000 voters in Clark County, but possibly a make-or-break figure in this year's presidential race. The margin of victory in 2000 came down to a few hundred votes, and this year appears just as close.

Despite Smith's efforts, there may be more felons on the rolls in Clark County, which includes Las Vegas.

A Chicago Tribune comparison of the county's voter rolls and a state database of those who have served time in the Nevada prison system over the past 18 months found 719 more felons who appeared to be illegally registered to vote.

They include people serving time in prison, those on parole, and those who have committed violent crimes and sex offenses. Such people, under state law, are banned from voting.

The analysis demonstrates challenges elections officials across the country face in identifying and dealing with possible illegal voters.

In Clark County, registration investigators like Smith struggle to keep up with the demands of running early elections and processing an avalanche of new registrations, which have amounted to 274,817 this year alone in the county, a figure that's more than the last three years combined, officials said.

Every month, Smith uses a list provided by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department of felons released from prison who took the initiative to register their status.

But that list doesn't include felons who don't abide by the requirement to file with police, election officials said.

The Clark County Election Department just doesn't have the staff to check those names, though it has recently considered plans to obtain felon lists from the state corrections, parole and probation departments, according to Smith and her boss, Registrar of Voters Harvard Lomax.

Officials noted that Nevada recently loosened laws prohibiting some felons from voting and said some of the 719 felons identified by the Tribune may now be eligible under those provisions or upon request by the felon for a reinstatement of voting rights.

Lomax said that for all his office's vigilance in weeding felons from the rolls, some will slip through the cracks, though such registrations are illegal.

"Well, with the database of 800,000-something registered voters, I'm sure we missed some," he said. "With all we have to deal with, it's not at the top of the priority list." The No.1 imperative is "making sure that we have an election where people can go out and vote," he said.

Of the 805 notices Smith mailed to felons, 118 were undeliverable, she said after counting a 6-inch stack of "return to sender" letters.

A little more than 200 of the felons responded and demonstrated to Smith that their voting rights should be restored.

That left just a little under 500 illegally registered felons who apparently got Smith's cancellation notice and hadn't responded as of last week.

Possible illegal registrations are one example of how electoral problems are rapidly emerging in several states. Lomax said his office this summer intercepted hundreds of other fraudulent registrations submitted by Democrat, Republican and non-partisan organizations conducting intensive voter recruitment campaigns.

Lomax said he found that canvassers returned stacks of 1,000 completed registration forms that often contained 30 to 50 applications filled out in the same handwriting. Lomax had no total figure for such fraudulent registrations.

He also found that canvassers registered the same individuals several times over the span of a week.

Some legitimately registered voters called to ask why they were getting registration formswith their party affiliation changed, Lomax said. Apparently some canvassers went through the phone book and reregistered people without their consent, listing their parties incorrectly, Lomax said.

Paid per registration

Though registration drive organizers told Lomax's office that canvassers were paid by the hour, many canvassers told his staff and even provided pay stubs that showed they were paid $2 for every completed registration form they collected in malls, stores and neighborhoods, Lomax said.

"They were on both sides. It wasn't just Democrats, it wasn't just Republicans," Lomax said. "The money was clearly the root of all evil here. They were paying people to register the voters. And the people doing this were way down the economic scale, and they wanted their money and they were just filling in forms.

"This was back in June and July when these people started, and we got that stopped pretty quickly," he added. "We've never seen it before, but we certainly saw it this go-round."

One of the registered felons recently identified by elections supervisor Smith was a 41-year-old Las Vegas trucker who asked that his name not be printed. Once the truck driver received the notice his registration was canceled, he told Smith that he had a state certificate restoring his civil rights.

Smith then reinstated him as a voter, leading him to leave a thank-you message on her voicemail, which she said she saved.

He said "it felt great" to participate in early voting last week, the first time he has voted since his 1992 conviction for a crime he described as a small felony.

"I'm not a mass murderer. I'm not Ted Bundy," he said. "What got me ticked off is I got a letter saying you are eligible to vote and then I got a letter saying I was not eligible to vote."

Once he was reinstated and cast his vote, he said, "I felt liberated."

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