By CBSNews.com Chief Political Writer David Paul Kuhn
Officials in Oregon have launched a criminal investigation after receiving numerous complaints that a Republican-affiliated group was destroying registration forms filed by Democratic voters statewide, Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury told CBSNews.com.
Meanwhile, CBS affiliate KLAS-TV is reporting accusations of similar malfeasance in Nevada.
Both state's allegations are linked to a Phoenix political consulting firm called Sproul & Associates run by Nathan Sproul, former head of the Arizona Republican Party. Sproul & Associates has received nearly $500,000 from the Republican National Committee this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Calls from CBSNews.com to Sproul were not returned.
Late Thursday afternoon, two Democratic senators, Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, sent a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft asking the Justice Department to "launch an immediate investigation into the activities of Mr. Sproul and his firm."
According to KLAS-TV, a former employee claimed hundreds, if not thousands, of Democratic registration forms were destroyed by a Sproul & Associates group called Voters Outreach of America.
The former employee first told local Nevada reporters that he had personally witnessed his boss shredding eight to ten voter registration forms, according to Steve George, a spokesman for the Nevada Secretary of State.
KLAS-TV quotes the chair of the Nevada Republican Committee, Earlene Forsythe, as saying, "The Republican National Party would never intentionally hire any staff people to come into the state to intentionally do voter fraud."
While Nevada is considering an investigation, Oregon's is well underway. Bradbury expects to have more than 200,000 new registered voters in Oregon by Election Day, when all the forms are tallied and verified. He said that they are now paying particular attention to issues of improper registration.
"We've had three [voter registration] complaints filed and we forwarded them to the attorney general who's doing the criminal investigation," Bradbury, a Democrat, said in an interview. "The complaints specifically name Sproul."
In Nevada and Oregon, Sproul allegedly canvassed voters for which candidate they intend to support. If voters were leaning Republican, the group is said to have assisted in their registration. If they leaned Democratic, the group allegedly ignored them or later destroyed the form.
It is illegal to destroy voting registration material.
"I've never seen this before. The allegations that are being made just totally offend me, not only because they are illegal," Bradbury said. "Regardless of whether it is a Democratic, Republican or Independent form, there is no better way to disenfranchise a voter than to say you are registered and then throw away a voter registration form."
Both Oregon and Nevada are considered battleground states in the presidential election. Though polls show Oregon likely to go to Democrat John Kerry, Nevada remains a dead heat between Kerry and President Bush.
Concerns over Sproul's practices were initially raised in early September when a Medford, Oregon, county librarian, Meghan O'Flaherty, received a fax from Sproul requesting to hold a voter registration drive at the local library on behalf of a nonpartisan group called America Votes. As a precaution, O'Flaherty did her own research on Sproul.
"I was just being a good reference librarian and checking the facts. We want to be sure someone who claims to be nonpartisan is nonpartisan," O'Flaherty said. "I didn't want anything going on here in the library that would call into question our neutrality."
The fax from Sproul was also received by three other Oregon libraries. CBSNews.com obtained a copy of the fax, as well.
In part, the fax reads: "Our firm has been contracted to help coordinate a national nonpartisan voter registration drive, America Votes!, in several states across the nation." The one-page fax also claims, "We will equally register all those who wish to register to vote."
However, Cecile Richards, the president of America Votes, said in a letter to Sproul that he "had never even heard of Sproul & Associates," and asked that "he refrain from using the name 'America Votes' in any of your activities from this point forward."
Part of the problem, said Bradbury, the Oregon secretary of state, is the "bounty system" where people are "paid by the signature for circulating petitions and that led to significant fraud."
"I have not seen a bounty system for voter registration before," Bradbury continued. "It's not illegal but I've never seen that before."
In Nevada, the allegations of voter registration malfeasance have irked local election officials. The Nevada Secretary of State's office has contacted the Department of Justice in Washington. An investigation is not yet underway.
"The allegations are that there was a group that was doing voter outreach in Las Vegas – Voters Outreach of America – allegedly made by one of its former workers that the group would destroy Democratic voter registration forms," said George, the spokesman for the Nevada Secretary of State's office.
In Las Vegas, the Clark County registrar's office has in the last month alone received more than 100,000 new registrations. Though it has only five electoral votes, the possibility that Nevada could go for either Bush or Kerry has brought the state to the forefront of the presidential race.
"If the allegations are true," George said "it could" involve hundreds if not thousands of voter registration forms. "We are looking at what state and federal laws may have been broken."