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Bipartisan plan would end ACORN electioneering

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Two frequent political rivals are joining forces to pursue radical changes to the nation's voter-registration system, a bid aimed in part at eliminating massive voter drives by groups such as ACORN that last year saw people fraudulently registering under the names of cartoon characters and sports figures.

The two prominent election lawyers - who advised Sens. John Kerry and John McCain during their respective presidential campaigns - want states to place the name of every eligible citizen on the voter rolls, rather than having people affirmatively register to vote, as they do now.

Another key objective: to modernize the registration process so it no longer depends so heavily on postcards and paper forms, said officials at the Pew Center on the States, a nonpartisan group that is backing the effort.

Marc Elias, who served as Mr. Kerry's lawyer, said there is at least one point on which campaign specialists from both parties can agree: "There ought to be a better way to do this."

Mr. Elias said he became convinced the registration process needed an overhaul while he was representing Al Franken during his protracted legal effort to be declared the victor in the 2008 Senate race in Minnesota. The court, he said, waded through more than 18,000 documents, often with the goal of gleaning whether someone who cast a ballot was properly registered.

As the case evolved, Mr. Elias said, lawyers on both sides found a rare sliver of common ground in their shared frustration with the voter-registration system.

Trevor Potter said his frustration with the registration system blossomed while he represented Mr. McCain during the 2008 election.

While Republicans raised vocal concerns about the potential for voter fraud during the final weeks of the campaign, he said his worries had less to do with fraud.

When the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) hired volunteers to fan out with clipboards and then flooded elections officials with registration forms as Election Day approached, Mr. Potter said he worried it would result in the election system being overwhelmed. That, he said, could have led to the vast use of provisional ballots, or to scenarios where elections officials simply allowed people to vote without having had time to verify that they were officially registered.

Worse still, he said, was that it was later determined that only about one-third of the late registration forms submitted were from legitimate, new voters.

"I want to be clear, I do not have a vendetta against ACORN," Mr. Potter said. His beef, he said, is with a registration process that feels like something "left over from the horse and buggy days."

The attempt at an overhaul is still in its infancy. The two men will oversee work by a panel of specialists that includes local and state elected officials as well as former members of Congress from both parties.

Neither was ready to set a timetable for presenting Congress with draft legislation, and the two agreed that any attempt to get Congress to alter the electoral system is bound to face serious hurdles. But they also said they think carefully worded legislation can gain backing from key leaders on both sides of the aisle.

A system that automatically registers every eligible voter will give no party an obvious political edge, they said. And regularly updated lists based on federal data could ensure that elections officials have correct information on Election Day.

One outstanding question is cost. Doug Chapin, the director of Pew's elections initiatives, said preliminary estimates suggest that a computerized system would be far less expensive then paper systems. But the upfront expense of an overhaul remains unclear, Mr. Chapin said.