Meeting for the first time in at least 15 years, the Delaware County Voter Registration Commission yesterday raised concerns about more than 4,000 voter-registration cards that may have been issued in error and, in another action, rejected 250 voter-registration applications.
Hugh A. Donaghue, the commission's solicitor, said publicity about irregularities in the voter-registration drive of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), an advocacy group for low-income and minority citizens, prompted him to check Delaware County's procedures regarding bulk registrations a couple of weeks ago.
"I was shocked" to learn that election officials were issuing cards even when verification procedures failed, a possible violation of the Help America Vote Act (HAVA) of 2002, Donaghue said.
HAVA requires applicants to submit the last four digits of their Social Security number or their driver's license number, which are doublechecked through the respective databases. When the information does not match, a first-class letter is sent to the applicant requesting them to contact the Bureau of Elections, Donaghue said.
If the letters come back with "addressee unknown" or applicants do not respond, cards should not be issued but were - as many as 5,000, he said.
When he questioned Delaware County election officials, Donaghue said they cited an August 2006 "clarification" memo from the Pennsylvania Department of State, which encouraged election officials to "override" the requirement that numbers match, he said.
The memo says that "rejecting voter registration applications solely on" mismatched numbers is not required by HAVA or Pennsylvania law and could serve to disenfranchise eligible voters. Often, when numbers can't be verified, they have just been transposed or misread, the memo said.
The memo recommends that election officials seek counsel from solicitors and the Voter Registration Commission.
Rebecca Halton, deputy press secretary for the state department, said yesterday that she had no information that any other county had interpreted the memo the way that Delaware County did.
"The department does not encourage, recommend or condone registering ineligible or unverifiable voter registration applications, by any county, organization or individual," said Halton.
She said the purpose of the memo was "to explain to county voter registration commissions and their staffs" that determining an applicant's qualification is the responsibility of the voter registration commission," which should base the decision on all information available, "not just a failure to achieve a match through the HAVA check/verification process."
Carmen P. Belefonte, the head of Delaware County's three-member voter registration commission and one of its two Republican members, said the group has never met in at least 15 years because "there's never been a need."
"We did the right thing today," he said of the 250 rejections. "We didn't deprive anyone of the right to vote; if they're legitimate voters, they can vote provisionally."
Both Belefonte and Donaghue, who said they were told the 250 rejected applications were submitted by ACORN, denied that the last-minute efforts were politically motivated, noting that the one Democrat on the commission, Ann O'Keefe, also approved the rejections.
Officials at ACORN, which has been attacked nationally in recent weeks for what Republicans have called a pattern of voter-registration fraud, said a small percentage of their $8-an-hour workers attempted to defraud the organization and were fired.
ACORN representatives said they marked applications collected by those workers "suspicious," and turned them in so that election officials could rule on their validity.