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Column: 'Tis The Season For Tricking Voters

This story was written by Deborah Hastings, Iowa State Daily


In the hours before Election Day, as inevitable as winter, comes anonslaught of dirty tricks confusing e-mails, disturbing phone callsand insinuating fliers left on doorsteps during the night.Theintent, almost always, is to keep folks from voting or to confuse them,usually through intimidation or misinformation. But in thispresidential race, in which a black man leads most polls, some of thedeceit has a decidedly racist bent.Complaints have surfaced inpredominantly African-American neighborhoods of Philadelphia wherefliers have circulated, warning voters they could be arrested at thepolls if they had unpaid parking tickets or if they had criminalconvictions.Over the weekend in Virginia, bogus fliers with anauthentic-looking commonwealth seal said fears of high voter turnouthad prompted election officials to hold two elections one on Tuesdayfor Republicans and another on Wednesday for Democrats.In NewMexico, two Hispanic women filed a lawsuit last week claiming they wereharassed by a private investigator working for a Republican lawyer whocame to their homes and threatened to call immigration authorities,even though they are U.S. citizens."He was questioning herstatus, saying that he needed to see her papers and documents to showthat she was a U.S. citizen and was a legitimate voter," said GuadalupeBojorquez, speaking on behalf of her mother, Dora Escobedo, a67-year-old Albuquerque resident who speaks only Spanish. "He totally,totally scared the heck out of her."In Pennsylvania, e-mailsappeared linking Democrat Barack Obama to the Holocaust. "JewishAmericans cannot afford to make the wrong decision on Tuesday, Nov. 4,"said the electronic message, paid for by an entity calling itself theRepublican Federal Committee. "Many of our ancestors ignored thewarning signs in the 1930s and 1940s and made a tragic mistake."LaughlinMcDonald, who leads the ACLU's Voting Rights Project, said he has neverseen "an election where there was more interest and more voter turnout,and more efforts to suppress registration and turnout. And that has areal impact on minorities."The Obama campaign and civil rightsadvocacy groups have signed up millions of new voters for thispresidential race. In Ohio alone, some 600,000 have submitted new voterregistration cards.Across the country, many of these first-time voters are young and strong Obama supporters. Many are also black and Hispanic.Activistgroups say it is this fresh crop of ballot-minded citizens that makessome Republicans very nervous. And they say they expect the dirtytricks to get dirtier in final hours before Tuesday."Oh,there's plenty of time for things to get ugly," said Zachary Stalberg,president of The Committee of Seventy, a Philadelphia-based governmentwatchdog group that is nonpartisan.Other reports ofintimidation efforts in the hotly contested state of Pennsylvaniainclude leaflets taped to picnic benches at Drexel University, warningstudents that police would be at the polls on Tuesday to arrestwould-be voters with prior criminal offenses.In his Jewishneighborhood, Stalberg said, fliers were recently left claiming Obamawas more sympathetic to Palestinians than to Israel, and showed aphotograph of him speaking in Germany."It shows up between thescreen door and the front door in the middle of the night," Stalbergsaid. "Why couldn't someone knock on the door and hand that to me inthe middle of the day? In a sense, it's very smartly done. The messagegets through. It's done carefully enough that people might read it."Suchtactics are common, and are often impossible to trace. Robo-calls, inwhich automated, bogus phone messages are sent over and over, are veryhard to trace to their source, say voting advocates. E-mails fall intothe same category.In Nevada, for example, Latino voters saidthey had received calls from people describing themselves as Obamavolunteers, urging them to cast their ballot over the phone.Tecalls were reported to Election Protection, a nonprofit advocacy groupthat runs a hot line for election troubles. The organization does notknow who orchestrated them."The Voting Rights Act makes it acrime to misled and intimidate voters," said McDonald. "If you can findout who's doing it, those people should be prosecuted. But sometimesit's just difficult to know who's doing what. Some of it's justanonymous."Trying to mislead voters is nothing new."Wesee this every year," said Jonah Goldman of the advocacy group Lawyers'Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. "It all happens around this timewhen there's too much other stuff going on in the campaigns, and itdoesn't get investigated."In 2006, automated phone calls in thefinal days leading to the federal election wrongly warned voters theywould not be allowed to vote without a photo ID. In Colorado andVirginia, people reported receiving calls that told them theirregistrations had expired and they would be arrested if they showed upto vote.The White House contest of 2004 was marked by similardeceptions. In Milwaukee, fliers went up advising people "if you'vealready voted in any election this year, you can't vote in thepresidential election." In Pennsylvania, a letter bearing what appearedto be the McCandless Township seal falsely proclaimed that in order tocut long voting lines, Republicans would cast ballots on Nov. 2 andDemocrats would vote on Nov. 3.E-mail assaults have becomeincreasingly popular this year, keeping pace with the proliferation ofblogging and Obama's massive online campaign efforts, according tovoting activists."It is newer and more furious than it ever has been before," Goldman said.AndRepublicans are not exempt. "Part of it is that election campaigns aremore online than ever before," said Goldman. "During the primaries, alot of Web sites went up that seemed to be for (GOP candidate Rudy)Giuliani, but actually were attack sites."New York City'sformer mayor and his high-profile colleagues Fred Thompson and MittRomney were also targeted in fake Internet sites that featured "quotes"from the candidates espousing support for extreme positions they never endorsed.
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