By Scott Mooneyham
You'd think the U.S. Justice Department had more important worries, bosses to save or court cases to lose. But unfazed by public humiliation or courtroom defeats, the federal agency apparently has chosen North Carolina as the latest state to harass regarding how it maintains voter registration rolls.
The Justice Department sent a letter to state election officials in the spring implying that they are failing to properly purge registration lists of ineligible voters.
The letter stated that voter registration in some North Carolina counties exceeds the voting-age population.
To be fair, federal laws enacted in the aftermath of the 2000 election debacle require states to periodically review voter registration rolls and make "a reasonable effort to remove the names of ineligible voters."
But those same laws make clear that state election officials may not remove voters who have changed residence unless the voters have failed to vote in the last two federal elections and haven't responded to written notification.
The Help America Vote Act and National Voter Registration Act also provide no guidance on how states are expected to match databases to remove deceased voters or convicted felons.
The federal laws avoid such specificity for good reason.
According to liberal-leaning Project Vote, studies have found that even well-intended database matching efforts resulted in error rates between 20 and 32 percent. Those errors disenfranchise legitimate voters.
The reaction from State Elections Executive Director Gary Bartlett has been pretty predictable. He's hopping mad.
In a response letter, Bartlett disputed Justice Department contentions that voter registration exceeds voting-age population in any of the state's jurisdictions. He also said the state vigorously reviews voter registration lists, and has centralized the removal of deceased voters and convicted felons.
That process has led to the removal of 725,499 names during a recent 19-month period, Bartlett said.
A review of the state's voter rolls by State Auditor Les Merritt, which began in January, led to a similar response from Bartlett, according to The Charlotte Observer.
Bartlett and North Carolina, meanwhile, have been praised nationally for stepping up voter registration efforts during a period when other states have slipped.
It all leads to a troubling question: What's this Republican-led Justice Department up to?
Since 2005, the federal agency has sued seven other states for failing to adequately monitor and purge voter lists. But in April, a federal judge sharply rebuked the department, dismissing a lawsuit filed against Missouri. And that lawsuit played a role in the resignation of federal prosecutor, who refused to sign off on the decision to sue.
Lawyers who once worked in the department's Voting Rights Section, both named and unnamed, have claimed in published accounts that the lawsuits are a partisan effort meant to disqualify legitimate voters.
Under such circumstances, Bartlett rightly refused to cooperate with the agency's latest requests of this state.
If Alberto Gonzalez and his minions want to sue, bring it on. We'll see whose credibility stands up in court.