Appeals court says Carnahan must keep voter rolls clean

Tuesday, July 29, 2008 | 7:06 p.m. CDT; updated 9:11 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 30, 2008

KANSAS CITY — An appeals court on Tuesday ordered a federal judge to go back and review whether Missouri’s chief election officer met her legal obligations to keep voter registration rolls current.

The U.S. Justice Department sued the state and Secretary of State Robin Carnahan’s office in November 2005 for alleged violations of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, which requires states to “conduct a general program that makes a reasonable effort to remove the names of ineligible voters from the official lists of eligible voters by reason of (death or change in residency).”

U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey ruled for Carnahan in April 2007, saying Missouri’s 116 local election agencies, not the state, have the responsibility to keep the rolls current.

Under Missouri law, the secretary of state has no enforcement power over local election agencies, Laughrey noted. The judge found that Carnahan and the state more than fulfilled the “reasonable effort” requirement by providing training and equipment to the agencies.

But in its ruling Tuesday, a three-judge panel of the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis sent the case back to Laughrey, saying the state is still ultimately responsible for enforcing the law.

It said the judge had to take a new look at whether the state was doing all it could to encourage the local election agencies to comply.

“Although Missouri cannot be required to enforce the (act) against the LEAs, any lack of LEA compliance remains relevant to determining whether or not Missouri is reasonably ‘conduct(ing) a general program,”’ the court wrote.

The panel stressed it wasn’t overturning Laughrey’s ruling and said, after her review, she may choose to reinstate her original decision if she finds Missouri’s efforts are still reasonable.

In an e-mail, Carnahan said her office would “continue to work with Missouri’s county clerks and election boards to keep their voter lists as clean and accurate as possible. We will also continue to provide the court with information we’ve collected regarding on the counties’ compliance efforts.”

She also said she hoped the lawsuit, which she called “unnecessary and costly,” would soon be dismissed.

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Kansas City didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.

Since the lawsuit was filed in late 2005, Missouri has created a statewide voter registration database into which local election authorities enter voter information. Carnahan’s office trains local officials on maintaining their lists and follows up with them if it appears they are not following the requirements of the federal law. Local and federal prosecutors can pursue violators.

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