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What Could Go Wrong: Part II

By Jarrett Murphy, producer

A surge in registration in several states and the expected high turnout for Election Day 2004 are stirring worries about polling problems and setting up possible court challenges across the country.

The list of potential pitfalls is motley:

  • New voters may not find their names on the rolls at polling places or may lack proper identification.
  • Some might have to file special provisional ballots, but even these could be discounted if filed in the wrong precinct.
  • There are allegations of registration fraud against both a Republican-linked firm and a Democratic-leaning organization.
  • Civil rights groups suspect that "purge lists" will block eligible voters.
  • Democrats worry about intimidation at the polls. Republicans fret about late-mailed absentee ballots.
  • The top election official in Florida has contacted the FBI about people from out of state casting ballots there.
  • In Ohio, there was even a controversy over the type of paper upon which registration forms must be printed.

    Despite the range of obstacles, state elections officials are projecting calm.

    "Will it keep us busier after the election than past elections? Absolutely," Ohio Department of State spokesman Carlo LoParo said. "Do we feel our laws and policies and election officials are up to the task? Of course. This is part of our job."

    This is the second article in a three-part series examining potential problems on Election Day and beyond. Part I focused on questions about voting technology. Part III will look at how the campaigns and others are gearing up for legal battles.

    The extra work has already begun in several states where allegations of fraud have been lodged. Republicans challenged 35,000 new registrations in Ohio. Officials in Colorado are probing possible registration fraud after voters began calling county clerks to say that they had received notice of new registrations containing false information.

    In Ohio, Colorado and Florida, some reports of fraud involve the voter registration drive conducted by the ACORN, or Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a Democrat-leaning group.

    The group claims to have registered about 1.1 million voters in the last year, including 212,000 in Florida and 184,000 in Ohio. Acorn executive director Steve Kest argues that the total number of suspect registrations add up to about "one tenth of one percent of all the registrations we've done." The workers at fault have been fired, he added.

    Meanwhile, officials in Oregon and Nevada are investigating complaints alleging that a Republican-linked firm, Sproul & Associates, committed voter registration fraud by destroying Democratic registrations. An e-mail fraud hotline set up by the Oregon elections office has received over 100 messages, although it's not clear how many pertain to Sproul. Sproul has denied the allegations.

    In a conference call last week, national Republican officials dismissed the allegations against Sproul but trumpeted worries about Acorn. Bush-Cheney campaign manager Ken Mehlman said state elections officials are "seeing evidence of … a systematic effort of fraud."

    Republicans also say Democrats are trying to create an atmosphere of confusion around the race by filing last-minute lawsuits, so they can claim after Nov. 2 that the outcome was tainted if President Bush wins.

    In several states, absentee ballots went out late because of litigation over Ralph Nader's place on the ballot. Mehlman claimed the delayed ballots were the intended result of Democratic lawsuits. Now, he says, the ballots "may not be counted because they won't be returned on time."

    Ann Martens, elections office spokeswoman for Oregon, one of the states that had to make a late change, says she is not concerned.

    "We sent out supplemental ballots with enough time left. I don't expect that there was a large contingent of military and overseas voters that were planning on voting for Nader," Martens said.

    The GOP also points to a Democratic National Committee election manual advising workers that, "If no signs of intimidation have emerged yet, launch a pre-emptive strike."

    "They are in effect willing to so anything including bringing chaos to this election in order to bring about an opportunity for them to be successful," said national Republican chairman Mark Racicot.

    The Democratic Party said the passage was taken out of context.

    "We make no apologies for fighting these tactics by exposing the dirty tricks when they happen, and helping educate local officials and activists about past Republican tactics so they can prevent them from occurring this year," said DNC Communications Director Jano Cabrera in a statement.

    The GOP is making its own early claims of dirty tactics. Mindy Fletcher, a senior Republican adviser in Florida, said that with Kerry supporters massing outside early voting sites there, "the Bush voters who are walking in are feeling intimidated."

    Early voting has itself been the subject of some wrangling. Civil rights activists criticized Duval County, Florida for having a single early voting center for all its 500,000 voters; the elections chief resigned citing health reasons, and his replacement opened more sites. Long lines have been reported at some locations in the state. However, supporters of the effort say it is largely a success.

    "In terms of the actual mechanics of voting, there hasn't been that much complaint — yet," said University of South Florida professor Susan MacManus.

    Most voters will not cast ballots early; they will wait until Election Day. That's when groups like Acorn and the NAACP expect monitors at polling sites in key states to challenge minority voters' right to cast ballots. Some of those worries are based only on anecdotal evidence, like statements by local GOP officials in a handful of states.

    In last weeks' conference call, Bush chairman Mehlman said the campaign doesn't "have any plans to aggressively challenge anyone."

    However, the Ohio Republican Party has announced plans to have monitors in many polling places, saying it wants "to ensure that voters are not disenfranchised and that fraud does not have an opportunity to present itself at the ballot box." Press accounts say Democrats will also have people at the voting sites.

    Voters might encounter a set of other hazards at the polls.

    For one, new voters who sent their registrations in by mail might have to produce a photo ID or other approved form of identification in order to vote.

    That's if their names have been added to the rolls at all. The surge in registration has created a huge workload for voting officials. In Ohio, where voter rolls have leapt by 800,000 to 7.9 million this year, LoParo said "boards of election across the state have been working really hard to process all their forms" and are "still scanning them in." LoParo expected that process to be complete by the end of the day Tuesday.

    Pennsylvania was still tallying up the new voters on Tuesday, but spokesman Brian McDonald said every county was done processing its registration forms.

    Voters who lack ID or who are not on the rolls can file provisional ballots — special forms on which a vote is made but not recorded until the voter's eligibility is checked. But federal courts in two states have ruled voters must file the special ballots in the right precincts.

    Some state elections officials have said that's what the law requires. But critics contend voters might be confused about where to go and lack the time to get to a second polling place if they arrive at the wrong one.

    "I think provisional ballots will be to 2004 what the chads were to 2000," said People for the American Way director Ralph Neas. "I think this is going to be by far the most serious problem."

    Courts have also dealt with controversy over whether a voting registration is valid if the registrant signs the form but fails to check the box saying she is a citizen. This week a federal judge in Miami dismissed a lawsuit against election officials that demanded they accept those incomplete forms. Ohio was enforcing a similar rule on the citizenship checkboxes, but changed course.

    For all the new worries about provisional ballots and registration drives, some of this year's potential problems hearken back to the last election — none more so than the worries about felon purges.

    Seven states ban felons from voting for life. Florida is one of them. A list Florida used in 2000 to purge supposed felons was found to be deeply flawed, tagging people who had not committed felonies and even listing crimes that had not yet been committed. This year, Florida tried to generate another list but it was scrapped when problems surfaced.

    Now, county election officials have been advised to make their own efforts to keep felons from voting. It is likely that some eligible voters kicked off the rolls in 2000 are still barred from voting.

    As of Friday, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said it had received 2,018 appeals from people listed as felons. In most cases — 1,474 of them — the person was "found to be a convicted felon." But 488 were found to not be felons. Fifty-six appeals were still pending.

    In Colorado, after a Denver Post story found 6,000 registered voters that could be convicted felons serving time or probation, state elections officials sent word to county voting supervisors to have those suspect voters file provisional ballots. The county will then have 12 days to decide if the voter is eligible or not.

    "We don't want to disenfranchise 'John Smith, upstanding citizen' as opposed to 'John Smith, serving his sentence,'" secretary of state spokeswoman Lisa Doran said. "I think 12 days will be enough. When it comes to it, I don't think we're going to see a huge number of felons attempting to vote."

    But investigative journalist Greg Palast contends that "a last minute purge where a voter cannot respond … smells of deliberate disenfranchisement."

    Controversy has even embroiled the type of paper used for registration forms. In Ohio, the secretary of state first insisted only forms printed on 80-pound weight paper were valid.

    Critics claimed that was an attempt to create a premise to reject new voters. Election officials counter that the post office requires that weight of paper for self-mailed forms.

    The paper requirement has been lifted.

    George Washington University Law Professor and CBS News Legal Analyst Jonathan Turley says the presence of an estimated 10,000 layers monitoring the voting for each major party will mean a post-election litigation explosion.

    "It's sort of like in the military," Turley said, "you say 'if you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.' If you've got 10,000 lawyers, every solution looks like a lawsuit.

    "It does not look good. We could very well, on Wednesday, have four or five Floridas going at once, and instead of a basic issue of chad counting, we could have six or seven issues that could turn various states."

    By Jarrett Murphy

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