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Lawyers May Vote With Their Briefs

Lawyers, election-rights activists and computer scientists fearing mayhem at the polls descended on Florida, Ohio and other battleground states Tuesday, vigilant for trouble with such contentious matters as provisional ballots and electronic voting machines.

New rules, new voters and a tight presidential contest combined to create "a recipe for problems" and the likelihood that results won't be known for weeks, said Sean Greene, who was assigned to watch Cleveland polls for the Election Reform Information Project, a nonpartisan research group on election reform.

Nearly one in three voters, including about half of those in Florida, were expected to cast ballots using ATM-style voting machines that computer scientists have criticized for their potential for software glitches, hacking and malfunctioning.

Voters had already lined up when polls opened in Miramar and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. At one location in Cleveland, Greene said he watched as poll workers tried to help one voter who didn't appear on any list find the correct place to vote.

Chellie Pingree, president of the citizens lobbying group Common Cause, said she feared poll workers faced with long lines would be pressured to make quick but bad interpretations on rules governing registration validity and identification requirements.

"There's no question it's going to be a high turnout," Pingree said Tuesday. "It's going to just add more confusion to already overburdened, understaffed polling places, many of which will have as many lawyers and poll challengers as they have people voting."

Within two hours after polls opened in some states at 6 a.m. EST, an online and phone hotline maintained by nonpartisan voting-rights activists recorded 906 incidents, mostly related to questions about registrations and polling locations. But some voters in New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio complained of late poll openings or troubles with non-electronic machines.

During the March primaries in California and Maryland, software bugs and inexperienced poll workers accidentally eliminated some races and allowed voters to cast ballots for contests in wrong precincts.

VerifiedVoting.org, a group of e-voting critics organized by Stanford University professor David Dill, has recruited more than 1,300 technology professionals to serve as poll monitors Tuesday.

Both parties had thousands of lawyers dispatched and on call to respond to the first sign of trouble.

In Pennsylvania, Democrats have at least 2,000 lawyers who will be keeping a close watch on voter intimidation and the Republicans will launch 1,000 lawyers to contest thousands of newly registered voters. Also watching the polls are representatives from the governor's office on cell phones waiting to call state officials should any problems arise, reports CBS News Correspondent Russ Mitchell.

In a decision early Tuesday, a federal appeals court cleared the way for political parties to challenge voters' eligibility at polling places throughout Ohio.

Separately, Ohio Republicans had sought over the past week to challenge some 35,000 voters, saying mail to them was returned undelivered, while in Colorado, GOP poll watchers complained that election officials in a Democratic stronghold failed to require early voters to produce identification.

In Palm Beach County, Fla., on Sunday, authorities arrested a freelance journalist taking pictures of voters waiting outside election headquarters.

"From what we've seen so far ... I think smooth is probably not the word used to describe" Tuesday's elections, said Kimball Brace, president of the nonpartisan consulting firm Election Data Services.

In Florida, the vote counting's already begun of absentee ballots. Possibly to come later: organized challenges of provisional ballots and other voter qualifications, and that could raise blood pressures, reports CBS News Correspondent Mark Strassman.

A key problem is the lack of a unified voting system for the nation, the legacy of a patchwork of balloting technologies, regulations, partisan bickering and litigation.

A federal law passed in response to the 2000 election mess required states to offer provisional, or backup, ballots to voters who find they are not listed on the rolls, or whose eligibility is somehow in question. The ballots are set aside and evaluated after the election — they could take 10 days or longer to resolve.

But states have interpreted the law differently. Millions of newly registered voters may wrongly assume they can vote at any precinct in their city, town or county. State officials and courts have disagreed on whether provisional ballots are valid when a voter is at the wrong precinct.

The measure also requires first-time voters who registered by mail to provide identification when they show up at the polls, though disputes have arisen over whether to extend that to all first-time registrants and what documents count.

Add to that confusion: absentee ballots.

More than a dozen states missed the recommended deadline to mail ballots overseas, and in Florida's Broward County, thousands of absentee ballots went missing or got delayed.

As for electronic voting, many of the problems — whether accidental or intentional — may not be known until well after Tuesday — if at all. Most of the ATM-style machines, including all of Florida's, lack paper records that could be used to verify the electronic results in a recount.

Florida requires state election administrators to count — and, if necessary, recount — an election within 11 days. But lawsuits could drag out the results for weeks, even forcing the courts to decide the outcome.

Four years ago, the Supreme Court intervened in a recount after 36 days, handing George W. Bush a 537-vote victory in Florida and with it the presidency.

Despite the controversy last time and the confusion this time around, a CBS News/New York Times poll conducted Thursday through Saturday found that most voters — 70 percent — were not concerned or not very concerned about whether their vote will be counted this year.

However, concern among blacks, a group subjected to disenfranchisement over many years, is far higher.


Voting Problem?
If you experience problems with voting machines or ballots contact your state elections official or the U.S. Department of Justice.