Who pays to spy on voters?

THERE WE GO AGAIN, revisiting the legal dispute between Republicans and Democrats over which absentee ballots from the November 3 election should be counted. The squabble deserves a second look because over the last two weeks the terms of the debate have degenerated into a much uglier and more fundamental struggle over the right to vote without fear of intimidation.

The county GOP, with Chairman Greg Fingar named as the lead litigant, filed suit after the election challenging the legitimacy of ballots in five towns. The basis of the objections in most cases involved people who have homes or maintain addresses in both Columbia County and some other place, often New York City or its suburbs.

A court decision in this matter has established the right of a person to vote where he or she has an address. But if a client is willing to pay the fee, why shouldn’t a lawyer try to convince a judge to overturn the precedent? It happens.

The biggest losers in this game are the taxpayers of Columbia County, because the county has to pay to defend the Board of Elections, and that cost could run into the tens of thousands of dollars in this case, even though county officials, Republicans and Democrats, have followed the law.

This contest turned rough at the outset, as Republicans initially singled out Democratic Elections Commissioner Virginia Martin in a separate suit. Then GOP lawyers agreed to drop their case against her, because she’s also named in the party’s broader effort to challenge ballots. The speed with which they backed off reeked of a creepy “we-know-where-you-live” tactic.

The Democrats raised a much smaller number of ballot challenges confined to technical defects that rendered some the ballots incomplete. The Republican challenges, on the other hand, rest on the theory that voters may not vote here if they also have an address outside the county. To support their theory, the lawyers have said they plan to issue subpoenas, demanding that the voters prove they reside here by producing up to 24 different types of documents, including federal income tax records dating back three years, records of all political donations from the last seven years, cable TV and Internet bills for the last six months (only six months?), newspaper and magazine subscriptions, library cards and frequent flier memberships. What, no blood type or DNA sample?

At face value, this demand for a personal data dragnet makes it sound like the GOP’s lawyers slept through the class on the central premise of the American legal system: a person is innocent until proven guilty. And this is where it gets ugly.

Democrats claim that the Republicans have been investigating individual voters in an effort to support their ballot challenges. If true, it’s a perversion of the democratic process and should be stopped immediately as an unwarranted invasion of privacy.

By now, though, the damage has already been done. The very threat to subpoena voters’ personal records will probably have the desired effect of suppressing future voter turnout in a county where turnout is usually high. And this from the party of Lincoln, who singlehandedly put millions of Americans on a path to the franchise, and of Richard Nixon, of all people, who supported the drive to give 18-year-olds the vote.

As for matters of principle, the GOP lawyers dropped or resolved their challenges to most of the ballots in all but one of the towns they originally contested, as if a coven of fraudulent voters had suddenly been quarantined in the Town of Taghkanic. So this costly battle will ultimately come down to a handful of races in Taghkanic, the least populous municipality in the county, which has little impact on the outcome of countywide issues. Makes you wonder who has the money to bankroll this legal circus.

Some Democrats have struck back with a call to boycott the insurance business of Mr. Fingar, the county GOP chief. Despite the long tradition of boycotts as an effective political tool, this approach, too, is perilous, especially in these dismal economic times. If the county business community becomes politically polarized, it will only prolong this stubborn recession.

The current legal wrangling is a warm-up for a larger battle next year, when the outcome of the election will determine who draws voting district lines for the next decade. Maybe GOP leaders think they can cling to power by bullying and spying on voters. If so, they seriously underestimate the people they want to represent. Right now the GOP looks desperate, not strong.

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