COLUMBUS, Ohio – One voter picks up letters at the post office because trucks kept hitting his mailbox. Another serves in Iraq. Hundreds more are homeless, listing shelters as permanent addresses.
All are among the 35,000 whose eligibility has been challenged by the Ohio Republican Party. Since mail came back undelivered, the GOP says, those registrations could be fraudulent. Democrats say the GOP is trying to keep poor and minorities, who move more often, from voting.
A federal judge put a temporarily halt to the challenges Wednesday, ruling in favor of Democrats who said the GOP was targeting new voters registered by political groups supporting Sen. John Kerry (search), the Democratic challenger to President Bush. U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott ruled that six county elections boards should stop hearings scheduled this week in Ohio, a hotly contested state in the presidential election.
In southwest Ohio, Republicans challenged the registration of Surjo Panerjee, a fact his brother found unusual. Panerjee, 40, is an Army sergeant who is now in Fallujah in Iraq.
Panerjee, also a veteran of the first Gulf War, uses his brother's house in Centerville as a permanent address even though he has lived around the world, said his brother, Dr. Partha Banerjee.
"He would laugh it off," Banerjee said. "He would say, 'I never get picked for anything nice — why can't they give me a car or something?"'
Republicans withdrew all 2,319 challenges in Montgomery County, including the one against Panerjee, after acknowledging several mistakes in its mailing.
In suburban Franklin County, the registration of Raven Shaffer was wrongly challenged because he gets mail at a post office box, according to the federal lawsuit filed Tuesday by Democrats. The "family's mailbox has been repeatedly hit by delivery trucks," the lawsuit said.
Also in Franklin County, 291 homeless people are being questioned out of the 2,370 total challenges, according to an analysis of the challenges by the Coalition on Homelessness and Housing in Ohio. In Cuyahoga County, 757 people of the 17,717 total being challenged are homeless.
"We're very concerned that people that have chosen to participate in our democratic process, who took a big step in registering to vote and who were poised to go to the polls on Nov. 2, are going to be disenfranchised, and we may never get them back," said Bill Faith, COHHIO executive director.
Mary Sullivan, 57, looked for work for a year after losing her job as a receptionist and prescription filler for a local drug maker in August 2003. She was evicted from her apartment after her money ran out this past June and spent two months at Friends of the Homeless, a shelter on Columbus' east side.
"My vote has to be counted," Sullivan said. "Just because you're homeless doesn't mean you're stupid."
Sullivan got a job caring for a 77-year-old widow at her suburban Columbus home in August. She had no idea her registration had been challenged.
"I've been voting for presidents since I was old enough to vote," said Sullivan, a Kerry supporter. "Now they're taking away my constitutional right."
It isn't just Kerry supporters who've had their registrations challenged. Roy Bottiggi, a 31-year-old registered Republican who plans to vote for President Bush, was confused when he got a call about a challenge to his registration. He has been a registered voter for 13 years, has lived in the same house for five years and voted in every election, general and primary, during that time.
"I was a little bothered by it," Bottiggi, a resident of Willoughby in northeast Ohio, said Wednesday. "I never really had a problem until now."
The Republican party withdrew its challenge after the Lake County Board of Elections documented his registration.
Dlott, appointed by former President Clinton in 1995, said her temporary order would remain in effect until further rulings in the case. She scheduled a hearing in her Cincinnati court for Friday morning.