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Senate Democrats, Republicans battle over voting laws

WASHINGTON — Senate Democrats and Republicans sparred Wednesday over whether voter ID laws, attempts to purge voter rolls, and restricted early voting were legitimate efforts to stop fraud or mainly Republican strategies to hold down Democratic votes.

Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, and former Florida governor Charlie Crist, a former Republican who recently turned Democrat, said the state GOP aimed its efforts at Hispanics and African-Americans. They cited as one example the elimination of early voting on the Sunday before the election, when members of those groups historically vote after church.

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At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the panel, defended Republican efforts to clear the rolls of ineligible voters and was backed by two Republican secretaries of state — Matt Schultz of Iowa and Ken Bennett of Arizona.

‘‘I believe voter ID laws are commonsense measures to prevent voter fraud,’’ Grassley said.

Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, had sharp exchanges with GOP secretaries of state about their attempts to find ineligible voters.

‘‘Do you have evidence of noncitizens voting in Iowa?’’ Durbin asked Schultz. ‘‘Since August 2012 six people have been arrested,’’ Schultz said.

Responding to another question from Durbin, Schultz said 1.6 million Iowans voted in the last election.

‘‘There are six cases,’’ Durbin repeated.

Schultz said: ‘‘That is what we have so far. We just started the investigation in August.’’

Under prompting from Grassley, Schultz said he has been trying to get access to a Homeland Security Department database that tracks who is a legal resident eligible to receive government benefits.

Bennett said Arizona prosecuted about 15 cases during the past 18 months of people who voted in Arizona and another state in the same election. But he added that counties have removed hundreds of people from voting rolls each month when jury forms found they were not citizens. He said 2.3 million people cast ballots in Arizona in the last election.

Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said that across the nation ‘‘thousands of letters have been sent to persons who have been erroneously identified as noncitizens because of the use of flawed driver’s license databases.’’

Gilda Cobb-Hunter, a Democrat in the South Carolina legislature, said the state’s attempt to impose a voter ID law would have suppressed the African-American vote, because ‘‘a voter residing in the easternmost part of my district would have to incur the costs of traveling approximately 70 miles roundtrip to the county seat to obtain a photo ID. Some of my constituents live even further away from the county seat.’’

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