In spite of massive efforts that resulted in a record year for new voter registration in Boone County, many residents might arrive at polling places on Election Day unable to vote.
Some independent voter-registration groups came through town, registered people and left — returning registration cards too late, if at all.
“I know there are groups that blew through town that we’ve never seen registration forms from,” said Boone County Clerk Wendy Noren.
Many Columbians who registered with private groups found out they still were not registered before the Oct. 6 deadline and re-registered in time, according to officials collecting registration forms. Associated Students of the University of Missouri said about 20 people came to their offices to re-register after finding out their initial forms didn’t go through.
But others did not realize they were not registered until it was too late.
“There is nothing I can do at this point, and that is why I have constantly harped on why you need to be very aware of who you are giving your form to,” Noren said. “If you did not hear from us, then there is a problem.”
More than 200 individuals from private registration groups and student organizations registered citizens in the months leading up to the registration deadline.
The larger groups registering residents — including Associated Students of the University of Missouri, America Coming Together, Voting Is Power, Missouri Citizen Education Fund, and Grass Roots Organizing — all report turning in their collected forms on time.
But there were many more groups operating in Columbia that the clerk’s office has no way of tracking. In Missouri, groups can bring in forms from other states and even make their own registration forms as long as they meet federal and state requirements.
“The open system is not subject to any kind of regulation. Anybody can pick up forms, anybody can make their own forms, and I’m required to take them,” Noren said.
While such an open system can help facilitate voter registration, as it has in Columbia, it can also serve as open ground for corruption, as some other states are discovering.
Allegations of intentional disposal of forms by private registration groups have recently surfaced in battleground states Nevada, Florida and Oregon.
“The voter is taking a risk in handing a form to anybody who is not official,” Noren said. “It would be kind of like giving your driver’s license application to somebody on the street and assuming that you wouldn’t get a ticket for driving without a license.”
However, Noren said she has not heard of any intentional destruction of registration forms in Boone County and credits the groups in town for helping to gather a record 21,000 new registrations, which is 14 percent above the next highest year on record in 1992.
“So far, I think the people here have done an excellent job,” Noren said. “We have had to get back to some people in some instances that we’re concerned about, but it is nothing on the level of people destroying registration cards,” Noren said. She has attributed stacks of late-arriving forms in the 2002 election to out-of-state groups not knowing the correct registration deadlines.
Her office did receive complaints about one private registration group, America Coming Together, for not giving registration applications to some people.
Krystal Marcum, a 21-year-old political science major at MU, said she was approached three times by ACT, but each time they didn’t offer her a card after finding out she was a Republican.
“The first thing they say is ‘Hi, we’re ACT and we’re going to get Bush out of the White House,’” she said. “It seems that they were only registering people interested in getting Bush out of office.”
ACT, which claims to be building the largest voter-mobilization effort in history, does not try to hide the fact that its focus is on Democrats.
“Our aim is to register likely Democratic voters,” said Sara Howard, Missouri communications director for ACT. “But we will register anyone who asks us to, and we will definitely turn in those cards as we’re required to by law, and in many cases, if they know we’re a Democratic group and have any concerns, we ask them if they would like to turn in the card themselves.”
Targeting one party or another is not illegal, though election officials say determining the party affiliation of a potential voter is more difficult in Missouri than in other states because voters do not register by party.
More serious allegations of voter-registration form destruction have cropped up Oregon, Nevada and Florida. Ex-employees of both left and right leaning registration groups have claimed that their organizations tore up registrations forms of opposing party voters.
Tearing up voter registration cards is not specifically against federal or Missouri state law, though it would fall under broader statutes such as a U.S. law that prohibits conspiring to suppress the rights of individuals, said Bryan Sierra, a Justice Department spokesman.
The group under review in Nevada and Oregon — America Votes — was formed by Nathan Sproul, former head of the Republican Party in Arizona. He has denied claims made by former employees that his group destroyed Democratic ballots.
America Votes, also called Voters Outreach of America, operated in Springfield, Mo., according to the employment agency Penmac. Penmac found temporary canvassers for the organization.
The county clerk for the Springfield area said he has had no complaints about intentional destruction of registration forms and noted that several such allegations spring up before an election.
In Florida, a former Miami-Dade field director of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, another voter-registration group, claimed that the group threw out Republican voter-registration forms. Calls to the Miami office of ACORN were not immediately returned.
The Missouri Secretary of State’s office said several residents have called to say they registered with the private registration groups that didn’t turn in their cards on time. However, they have received no complaints of voter-registration destruction.
To verify voter registration, visit the Boone County Clerk’s Web site at www.showmeboone.com/clerk/ or call (573) 886-4375.