The controversy that recently erupted in North Carolina over confusing, misleading and at times illegal voter registration tactics used by Women's Voices Women Vote has not discouraged the D.C. nonprofit from continuing similar efforts in Appalachian states with primaries this month.
Officials in West Virginia and Kentucky, which hold primary elections today and May 20 respectively, tell Facing South that the group is causing similar confusion among the prospective voters it's contacted in those states -- many of whom are already registered to vote.
As documented in our recent investigation into the group's activities in North Carolina, Women's Voices racked up official complaints from elections officials in Arizona and Colorado as long ago as November 2007. In February, the group was the target of a police investigation in Virginia that resulted in Women's Voices promising to stop making anonymous robo-calls. But two months after making that promise, the group showed up in North Carolina and again made anonymous robo-calls in the week and a half before the primary, telling people they'd receive a voter registration packet in the mail.
The calls and mailers raised concerns among North Carolina voting rights advocates because they gave registered voters the impression that they were not properly registered. In addition, the robo-calls were illegal under the state's laws because they did not identify the group making them, leading North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper to issue a cease-and-desist order. The N.C. NAACP filed a formal voter-suppression complaint with Cooper and notified the U.S. Department of Justice, in part because of the differences in the calls that went to black voters (listen to the call here) vs. white voters (audio file here).
Now Facing South has learned that Women's Voices Women Vote has gone on to engage in some of the same problematic behaviors in West Virginia and Kentucky.
In West Virginia, Secretary of State Betty Ireland issued a press release [pdf] on Thursday, May 8 cautioning voters about Women's Voices "potentially misleading" registration efforts. The warning came after the organization began mailing voter registration forms to more than 16,000 unmarried women across the state right before the primary election, but after the April 22 deadline to register for that election had already passed.
"I do not want registered voters to be confused by this mailing," Ireland said in the press release. "If you were already registered to vote, you do not need to re-register. If you were already registered but recently moved, it is best to contact your county clerk to make sure you vote in the correct precinct on Election Day."
Secretary of State spokesperson Sarah Bailey told Facing South her office had received about 300 returned forms as of May 7 -- but many of them from people who were already registered. The same problem has occurred in many of the 24 states where Women's Voices is working, and in North Carolina the resulting confusion led some to believe it was was an attempt to suppress votes -- a charge that Women's Voices has denied.
Chaos in Kentucky
In Kentucky, Women's Voices has been causing problems for elections officials for about eight months now. Last week, Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson issued a warning that the nonprofit's confusing materials risk leading registered voters to mistakenly think they're not.
The Kentucky official also noted that Women's Voices was conducting confusing robo-calls, two and a half months after they had pledged to end the practice:
The State Board of Elections has also heard from voters and from county clerks that WVWV have been sending automated calls encouraging people to register to vote which does not explicitly state that the voter registration deadline has passed for the May primary election.
"We are unfortunately familiar with this group," Sarah Ball Johnson, executive director of the Kentucky State Board of Elections, told Facing South. "We started communicating with Executive Director Joe Goode last year to help them understand what it's like on our end, but it hasn't helped."
Johnson first encountered Women's Voices prior to the state's gubernatorial election last November, when the group began sending out voter registration mailings. In fact, Women's Voices established a mail permit in the board's name, making the state office a target for confused and angry recipients.
"The mailer looked like it came from us," Johnson reported.
After the elections board complained, Women's Voices stopped using its name. But the nonprofit hasn't always been so willing to cooperate with frustrated local officials. For example, Johnson says she has repeatedly asked to preview Women's Voices materials before they're mailed out out but was told no. She's concerned because the materials contain misleading language -- that, for example, "federal law requires you to fill this out to vote," which is not true.
Johnson observed that many of the forms that are returned are not even properly completed but instead contain "hateful messages" or are simply left blank, presumably because the recipient wants to cost the group postage.
Another "unfortunate coincidence?"
The boilerplate letter [pdf] that Women's Voices Women Vote sent to West Virginia election officials -- identical in almost every respect to letters it has sent in other states -- reads in part:
Unfortunately, West Virginia residents will receive this [Women's Voices voter registration letter] after the deadline for registering to vote to participate in the upcoming primary election. [...]
We hope this unfortunate coincidence of timing does not lead to any confusion or aggravation for either your state's voters or registrars.
But given the mayhem that has transpired in 12 other states -- including national controversy from their North Carolina experience -- Women's Voices is well aware that their oddly-timed mailings will lead to "confusion and aggravation."
It's no mistake or "coincidence" -- so why do they keep doing it?
Women's Voices states on its website that it "started with one goal in mind: Improving unmarried women's participation in the electorate and policy process." Working closely with Catalist -- makers of a large, widely-used voter database created by Harold Ickes, a lead strategist for Sen. Hillary Clinton -- Women's Voices says its mission has expanded to target a wide range of unregistered voters, including African-American and Latino families.
But in the states Women's Voices works, other nonprofits registering voters are baffled by the group's tactics. Facing South spoke to representatives of over a dozen groups with decades of experience registering voters in Kentucky, North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia; not one endorsed the methods used by Women's Voices.
"Operation Chaos," was how one elections watchdog described their tactics. "They're at 30,000 feet, bombing away with these calls and mailings" and unconcerned about the consequences on the ground, said another. "I couldn't think of a worse way to register voters if I tried," said another.
In the 12 states where Women's Voices' tactics have generated controversy, the group has typically responded by "apologizing for the confusion," chalking it up to "mistakes." In recent statements, however, Women's Voices seems to acknowledge their approach is deliberate -- and claims that it won't confuse voters. In an interview at DailyKos, Women's Voices president Page Gardner compared their approach to "Motor Voter" registration that happens at state agencies: "We do not believe this confuses people that are already registered to vote," she said.
Voting rights advocates don't buy it. "Anonymous robo-calls and confusing mailings have nothing in common with a guy at DMV offering you a voter registration form," said a long-time voting rights advocate in North Carolina.
Indeed, in North Carolina the confusion generated around the state's critical May 6 primaries was especially baffling given that the state had a much simpler alternative: one-stop registration and voting, the method advocated by every state voter registration operation Facing South contacted.
Women's Voices says the confusion and controversy is worth it in the end because they get results. A recent statement claims Women's Voices has registered 600,000 voters since 2004, making it "among the top two or three voter registration organizations in the country."
The voting rights advocates Facing South spoke to doubt whether the use of deceptive and even illegal tactics justify the ends. But even the voter registration numbers that Women's Voices points to are in question.
Guy Zeigler, clerk of the Franklin County Board of Elections in Frankfort, Ky., estimates that about half of the forms from Women's Voices that are returned to his office come from people who are already properly registered to vote -- raising questions about how the nonprofit measures its success.
"They apparently judge their effectiveness by how many mailing forms are used by voters, but that's a false positive," said Johnson in Kentucky. "Time and time again, we've told them there are many duplicates."
Of the remaining 2008 primaries, Women's Voices has efforts underway in three of them aside from West Virginia: Kentucky, Oregon, and South Dakota.
-- Sue Sturgis and Chris Kromm
UPDATE I: Over at DailyKos, Adam B notes that, in his recent interview with Women's Voices president Page Gardner, she said all of the group's robo-calls nationally were conducted April 24 and 25. Furthermore, on May 3, the group said in a statement that:
We have concluded that, in this context, we will not in the future mail or call during the window between close of registration for the primary and the primary election.
The first statement doesn't specifically reference mailings, and it's unclear what the phrase "in this context" refers to in the second. But it is important to note that, if the WVWV letters in Kentucky and West Virginia were sent by Women's Voices before May 3 -- which is very likely -- they would have held to their pledge. This would be different than their pledge in February to stop robo-calls, which was not honored.
Some follow-up questions: In North Carolina, WVWV worked with Democracy North Carolina to pull some of the confusing mailings before NC's May 6 primary, with some success. Did Women's Voices attempt similar efforts to ensure confusing mailings did not reach voters in WV and KY, and were they successful?
Also, in WV and KY, Women's Voices had much more time to pro-actively take steps to clarify their efforts and avoid confusion among voters. What steps did they take before the WV and KY primaries?
UPDATE II: I just spoke with a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State's office in South Dakota, who forwarded the below press release. She said a key problem in SD is that WVWV's mailing "was deceptive because it said voters must re-register if they move," which is "not the law in South Dakota." She believes the mailing was sent in late April.
For Immediate Release: May 7, 2008
Contact Chris Nelson, 773-3537, for further information.
Secretary of State Chris Nelson is warning South Dakotans that a Boston, Massachusetts, organization called the "Voter Participation Project" is sending mailings into South Dakota telling our citizens that under "state law" they need to re-register to vote. The mailing lists the Secretary of State's address, adding the appearance of credibility.
Nelson says, "The language in this mailing is not true. This organization is misleading our citizens into thinking they need to fill out another voter registration form in order to vote. Many South Dakotans have complained to me about receiving these mailings. Some mailings have gone to folks who are deceased asking them to register to vote. My elderly mother received a mailing and was concerned that she needed to fill it out in order to vote."
"Any South Dakota voter can check to see their voter registration status by going to www.sdsos.gov and clicking on the Voter Information Portal. That site will show where you are registered, where your polling place is located, and show you your sample ballot for the primary election."
"Voters are not required by law to re-register when they move. We encourage re-registration upon a move, but it is not required by law."