DETROIT, Michigan - An alleged purge of registered voters, many of whom lost their homes to bank foreclosure, in the state of Michigan has prompted a lawsuit and calls in Congress for a Justice Department investigation.
At the centre of this possible election debacle in Michigan, where Democrat Sen. Barack Obama is leading his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, is Republican Secretary of State Terry Lynn Land, who has been criticised in the past by a federal judge for restricting access to 'provisional ballots' by voters uncertain about their voting precincts.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Advancement Project filed a suit in U.S. District Court in Detroit last month against Land, her director of elections Christopher Thomas, and Ypsilanti City Clerk Frances McMullen for using two programmes to remove voters from the rolls without proper federal procedure.
The first programme used by the state, according to the lawsuit, is the immediate cancellation of the drivers' licenses of Michiganders who have obtained licenses in other states without the appropriate confirmation of registration notices.
Under the second removal programme, election clerks automatically eliminate names of voters from the files who may have moved from their registered addresses, instead of sending them a warning notice by forwarded mail.
'The National Voter Registration Act of 1993 states that, if a registrar receives information suggesting a voter has moved from their registration address, they should send them a confirmation of registration notice by forwarded mail, including a postage-prepaid return card, and ask them to confirm the address,' said Bradley Heard, the Advancement Project's lead attorney, in the lawsuit.
'The registrar also can flag the voter's record for confirmation if the voter appears to vote. If the voter does not either respond to that notice or appear to vote within two federal general elections from the date of the notice [the ones that occur in November of even-numbered years], the voter can be removed from the rolls.'
These removal programmes could have a devastating impact in minority and low-income areas hardest hit by the mortgage crisis like Wayne County, home to large African American and Hispanic communities -- key voting blocs for Democrats.
The federal lawsuit is before Judge Stephen Murphy, the immediate past U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan. Murphy said he will review arguments from both sides before ruling whether to stop the two programmes.
IPS found that from January to September of this year, 17,691 homes have been foreclosed in Wayne County, the state's largest county which led the nation in 2007 in foreclosures for large metropolitan areas.
Recently, Macomb County, a swing county home to many conservative-leaning so-called Reagan Democrats, was in the news for the reported statements of its Republican Party chairman James Carabelli that the party is planning to use a list of foreclosed homes to prevent people from voting in the November presidential election.
'We will have a list of foreclosed homes and will make sure people aren't voting from those addresses,' Carabelli reportedly told the Michigan Messenger in a phone interview. He would later deny the comments.
In 2004, John Pappageorge, a Republican state senator from Oakland County, a Republican stronghold -- where polls now show Obama beating McCain among independents (48 percent to 25 percent) and women (55 percent to 37percent) -- called for suppression of the Detroit vote to win the election.
'We are deeply troubled by recent media reports that the chairman of the Michigan Republican Party in Macomb County is planning to use a list of foreclosed homes as a basis to challenge voters and block them from participating in the election,' House Judiciary Committee chairman John Conyers wrote to U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey.
'We are writing to request that the Department of Justice launch a full scale investigation into the matter. Given the number of voting rights complaints filed after the 2004 election it is critical that the Department take proactive steps now to prevent voting rights violations in November,' Conyers wrote.
The letter added, 'The plan should be investigated as a possible violation of the Voting Rights Act.'
The Justice Department will meet with Conyers this week to address concerns about voters being challenged on their foreclosure status.
The Centre for Responsible Lending said Michigan, California, Washington D.C., New Jersey, and Nevada have high mortgage defaults. The report estimated that 10 percent of African American borrowers and 8 percent of Hispanic borrowers will be affected by foreclosures compared to 4 percent of white borrowers.
It is not clear how many voters have been purged.
But Thomas, the state election director, said about 70,000 people are removed on an annual basis because of the change in their driver's license, and that about 1,400 people have been removed since the start of this year because of their returned ID card. 'We think the actual numbers will be higher, but that will be the subject of the discovery in the case,' Heard said.
The New York Times reported that based on its own findings Michigan removed 33,000 people from the voter roll.
Thomas denied the report and said overall only 11,000 were removed because of death or authorised change notifications.
The Times ranked Michigan among five other swing states -- Colorado, Indiana, Ohio, Nevada and North Carolina -- that unintentionally purged voters.
Detroit City Clerk Janice Winfrey, who has registered 28,000 new voters, told IPS that 1,567 records have been purged from the Detroit voter file because they are considered 'inactive', meaning the person is deceased or notified election officials they've moved out of state.
To date, Winfrey said Detroit has 634,444 registered voters for Nov. 4. and only 90,000 of that figure voted in the primary election.
'We need to make sure every vote counts and that people are registered to vote,' said Mildred Madison of the League of Women Voters in Detroit.