October 09, 2008
Yesterday the Republican Party of Montana announced that it was abandoning its plans to challenge the voting eligibility of at least 6,000 residents of that state-mostly in democratic strongholds-who had filed change-of-address cards with the U.S. Postal Service. In a letter sent to election officials in seven counties, state GOP executive director Jacob Eaton withdrew the party's challenges and said they would be issuing no more. Several hundred letters requesting that individuals confirm their correct addresses had already gone out from overworked election offices before the GOP withdrew its challenge.
Voting rights groups, including Project Vote, had previously condemned the plan to challenge the voters as an illegal voter caging operation intended to intimidate and suppress thousands of eligible Montana voters. In a statement released October 3, Project Vote attorney Teresa James, author of the 2007 report Caging Democracy: A 50-Year History of Partisan Challenges to Minority Voters, pointed out that Montana law and the National Voter Registration Act allowed voters who had moved to cast their ballots in their old precincts and change their address at the polls. "In light of these state and federal protections," James said, "challenging voters who have filed a change of address with the U.S. Post Office would serve no purpose other than to interfere with the orderly conduct of the election and intimidate voters. Democracy works best when all eligible citizens participate in the process."
"My intent was to ensure that voters are properly registered and that Montanans would have the utmost faith in the integrity of our elections process," Eaton wrote in the letter to election officials. "Nevertheless, because of the unintended consequences that have been reported, I will not file any other elector challenges."
Following a story about the challenges that appeared in The Missoulian on October 2, the "unintended consequences" of the GOP challenge included chaos at election boards, condemnation from voting rights groups, protests within Montana, and a lawsuit filed by the Montana Democratic Party on behalf of two challenged voters. In the Montana Standard, Lieutenant Governor John Bohlinger, a Republican, called the challenge "an utter disgrace," and said he was "appalled by the leadership of [his] political party."
The developments in Montana came just a few weeks after reports of the Michigan GOP's plans to challenge the eligibility of voters whose names appeared on foreclosure lists. Met with similar public outrage and accusations of voter caging, the Michigan GOP recanted those plans as well, according to the Michigan Messenger.
"We are pleased to hear that the Montana GOP has decided to withdraw the challenges," James said today. "And we are encouraged that these kinds of partisan caging operations-which have been used in previous years to disenfranchise thousands of eligible voters-are being met this election cycle with the media scrutiny and public outrage they deserve."
"The plans to challenge thousands of eligible Montana voters were made, like most such suppression efforts, under the guise of protecting against a mythical threat of 'voter fraud,'" James continued. "But their quick withdrawal in the face of public scrutiny supports our position that partisan challenges are not motivated by genuine concern over alleged 'voter fraud', but by a cynical desire to keep some people from voting at all."