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Sunday, October 17, 2004

Experts Expecting Election Night Chaos

More than two weeks before the presidential election, Democrats and Republicans in key states are trading accusations of fraud and voter intimidation, foreshadowing an Election Day on which lawyers may be almost as important as voters.

Complaints from both parties, routine in election years, have reached a fever pitch earlier and in more places than usual. From Oregon to Florida, shenanigans with voter registration forms are being alleged, and authorities are looking into the charges.

"The more people realize that a tiny number of votes can have a huge impact, the more aggressively they are going to fight," says Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, which monitors voting practices. "The closer we get to the election, the more we're going to hear about this." For example:

• In Nevada, a company hired by the Republican Party to register voters was accused by a former employee of throwing Democrats' registration forms into the trash. The company, Sproul & Associates, denied that it was registering only Republicans, as the employee charged in a report on KLAS-TV in Las Vegas. The company also has been registering voters in Oregon, West Virginia, Minnesota and other battleground states.

• In Florida, scene of the 36-day recount in 2000, the state's Southern Christian Leadership Conference asked the U.S. Civil Rights Commission to investigate activities "designed to cause confusion and suppress the African-American vote" in the Tallahassee area. Labor and voting-rights groups also sued this week to prevent the disqualification of more than 10,000 incomplete registration forms. They said such disqualifications would disadvantage minority voters.

• Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a local co-chairman of Sen. John Kerry (news - web sites)'s campaign, wants the county to print 938,000 ballots, far more than the usual number, to accommodate a flood of new voters. But County Executive Scott Walker, a local co-chairman of President Bush (news - web sites)'s re-election campaign, is giving the city 679,000 ballots - 10,000 more than were printed for the last presidential election. He says having a large number of excess ballots would be an opportunity for fraud. Local District Attorney Mike McCann plans to deploy more than 30 lawyers on Nov. 2 to mediate polling-place disputes. He says "malevolent challenges" by partisans could interfere with voting.

• Republicans circulated excerpts of a national Democratic Party election manual urging recruitment of local minority leaders to launch pre-emptive strikes against voter intimidation, even if there's no evidence it's going on. Democratic spokesman Jano Cabrera said the material was taken out of context. He released a fuller excerpt that stated, "The best way to combat minority intimidation tactics is to prevent them."

• In Denver, an estimated 165,000 new voter sign-ups brought warnings of potential vote fraud. State officials have sent several hundred registrations to the attorney general for review, and the Denver district attorney is investigating 200 more. Both parties have enlisted hundreds of lawyers for Election Day challenges and for post-election fights over disputed ballots.

Rep. Pat Tiberi, an Ohio Republican, noted that four counties in his state have voter registration numbers that exceed the number of voting-age residents in the counties in the last Census. "When you have an election so close, and every vote makes a difference, these things get argued about, and probably lawsuits will decide them," Tiberi said.



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