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Voter Registration May Be Hampered

Senate Rules and Administration Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and election administrators are warning that a shutdown of the Social Security Administration’s computer grid over the Columbus Day holiday may throw last-minute nationwide voter registration efforts into disarray. They are urging the SSA to delay its computer maintenance work until after Election Day.

In a Sept. 23 letter obtained by Roll Call, Feinstein told Social Security Commissioner Michael Astrue that a planned Oct. 10-13 network shutdown could create massive headaches for state election workers, who are required under 2002’s Help America Vote Act to cross-check new voter data with the agency’s online database of Social Security numbers.

“With millions of newly registered voters, and many more registering to vote every day, state and local election registrars are working seven days a week to get new voters on the list,” Feinstein wrote to Astrue last week. “The days when the SSN database is scheduled to be off-line are critical.”

Feinstein estimated that the shutdown could affect registration efforts in a dozen states whose registration deadlines fall within a week of the planned shutdown.

In a separate letter to Astrue the previous week, Rosemary Rodriguez, the Democratic-nominated Election Assistance Commission chairwoman, put the number of states likely affected by the shutdown at 41, including a handful of states where Democratic-leaning groups claim they are registers tens of thousands of new voters with the hope of changing the electoral map in their favor.

“In some states, the inability to compare new registrants to SSA’s database may result in voters having to produce additional identification on Election Day or having to cast provisional ballots,” Rodriguez wrote to Astrue on Sept. 19. “As we approach the November 4th Election, Americans are registering to vote in record numbers and it is important that election officials are given the tools and support to process these applications.”

In an interview on Monday, Rodriguez was vague about what specifically could happen with the last-minute registrations if the agency proceeds with its network shutdown as planned. In the meantime, she said her office is urging local election officials to get their information early to avoid the potential chaos.

“We have no idea of what to expect,” Rodriguez said. “It’s possible that the states won’t be able to process them in a timely fashion.”

An SSA spokesman did not respond to a Roll Call request to discuss the agency’s scheduled shutdown or Astrue’s potential response to the letters. The commissioner, who started at the agency last year, is a veteran of Republican administrations going back more than 20 years, according to his biography on the SSA Web site. Campaign finance records also show that the Belmont, Mass., resident has given more than $35,000 to GOP candidates and causes during the past decade.

A handful of historically Republican-leaning states that Democrats are now targeting have fast-approaching registration deadlines that may be affected by the shutdown, including North Carolina, Virginia and New Mexico. The same is true in Michigan, a regular presidential battleground.

In North Carolina, where Democrats are hoping to make a splash up and down the ballot this cycle, voter registration — particularly among self-described independents — has increased dramatically since the last presidential election, a trend likely to continue in the coming weeks. According to North Carolina State Board of Elections data, voter registration has jumped from 5.07 million in May 2004 to more than 6 million today, a 20 percent increase.

Presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is making the state a high-profile target this cycle, as are House and Senate Democrats, who are spending millions of dollars targeting incumbents Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) and Rep. Robin Hayes (R).

The list of possibly affected states also includes the perennial political battlegrounds of Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio.

Wendy Weiser, a voting rights expert at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, agrees with Rodriguez’s and Feinstein’s calls to reschedule the agency’s network outage, writing on her blog last week that it “will seriously impair the ability of states to process new voter registrations before the November 4 election.” Weiser also cited research by her organization showing that the shutdown may disproportionately affect “older, African- American, and low-income” registrants.

“In every election, there is a huge spike in voter registrations in the period right before the voter registration deadline,” Weiser wrote. “Florida, for example, typically receives between 13 and 20 percent of its new voter registrations in the week before the deadline.”

Weiser told Roll Call on Tuesday she doubts that higher-ups at the agency are acting politically by shrugging off requests to delay the shutdown until after the election, saying that the Social Security Administration’s “intentions are OK” but that the computer work “could lead to problems,” particularly in states with onerous polling-place requirements.

“There will be a lot of collateral problems with not getting processed,” Weiser said.

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