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Poll Watchers May Outnumber Voters
Published on Wednesday, October 20, 2004 by the Inter Press Service
Poll Watchers May Outnumber Voters
by Katherine Stapp
 

NEW YORK - The most closely scrutinized election in U.S. history is also proving to be the most litigious, with dozens of states fending off challenges to aspects of their electoral laws, and some experts predicting the vote count will again drag out for weeks.

The Democrats, who appear grimly determined to never again countenance the humiliations of the last election in 2000, when a divided Supreme Court declared George W Bush the winner based on 537 votes, say they have more than 10,000 lawyers at their disposal to monitor the polls Nov. 2.

Not to be outdone, the Republicans are deploying their own army of attorneys to 30,000 voting sites in the most hotly contested states.

Added to the mix is an array of groups, some formed just to avert potential election fraud, which have filed a flurry of lawsuits on issues ranging from voter registration to the trustworthiness of electronic voting machines.

In Florida, the eye of the electoral hurricane four years ago, a coalition of labor unions is suing five counties over thousands of rejected registration forms -- more than one-third submitted by African Americans and a quarter by Latinos, groups that both heavily favor Democratic contender Senator John Kerry.

Judith Browne of the Advancement Project, a watchdog group involved in the suit, said most of the forms were disqualified for minor oversights. For example, in Broward County, officials refused to process 994 registration forms because the applicants had signed an oath affirming they were U.S. citizens but neglected to check a box at the top asking: ”Are you a U.S. citizen?”

”People have registered in unprecedented numbers, and the counties now have a huge backlog,” said Browne. ”One problem is that people whose forms were rejected because they didn't check an irrelevant box haven't been informed, and they're going to show up on election day to vote and get turned away.”

”There's a lot at stake in this election, and we're just trying to clear the path for a democratic result,” she added.

The issue is especially sensitive because in the last election, more than 10,000 ballots cast by heavily Democratic-leaning black voters in Florida were thrown out, effectively handing victory to Bush.

Some polls opened for early voting in the state on Monday, although even that exercise was fraught with problems, including long delays at many precincts and computer glitches that prevented election workers from checking voter rolls.

Common Cause, a national advocacy group that just released a report on Florida's readiness for the 2004 election, says the problems are so serious that voters in the 15 districts using touch-screen voting machines should ”seriously consider” using mail-in ballots instead.

With Bush and Kerry tied in the latest polls, and the election again likely to hinge on a small number of votes, some experts say they would not be surprised if it takes weeks to declare a winner after Nov. 2.

”There are lots of variables that raise the specter of a disputed election,” said Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado, citing the campaigns' obsession with a handful of undecided voters and obvious willingness to cry fraud.

”One of the most important components of the 2000 election was the reluctance of the loser to concede defeat, which was something we really hadn't seen before,” he added in an interview.

”Today, the margin of victory in many parts of the country is within a range of error that could leave the results open to question.”

”For example,” added Campos, ”there's an excellent chance that the vote in Florida or Ohio will be close enough that it will be disputable. Throw Colorado into the mix, and I think we're heading into a brave new world.”

Electionline.org, a non-partisan website that acts as an information clearinghouse, released a 62-page report Tuesday listing some positive developments, such as the use of provisional ballots for people whose names may have been wrongly dropped from the rolls, and expanded access for the disabled.

A list of voters rights will also be displayed in every polling place, and voters will have access to federally mandated complaint procedures if they encounter problems.

But although vast sums have been spent on these and other electoral reform measures under the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which was supposed to set minimum standards and update obsolete equipment, many of the factors that precipitated the 2000 fiasco have yet to be addressed.

In Ohio, a ”swing state” where the outcome is too close to call, more than 70 percent of voters will still be relying on punch-card voting machines of the sort that proved so unreliable in Florida -- and which HAVA specifically says should be scrapped.

And the dozens of states that eagerly used federal money to replace these antiquated systems with computers are struggling to allay fears that the servers are vulnerable to hackers and produce no verifiable paper record in the event of a recount.

In New Jersey, where polls show Bush and Kerry in a virtual tie, citizens and Democratic officials filed a lawsuit Tuesday to bar the use of 8,000 computerized voting machines across the state.

”We believe that the only way to ensure that the machines are doing what they're supposed to do is to have a voter-verified ballot,” said Penny Venetis, the lead lawyer in the suit.

”But that's an issue to address for the next election. For now, we want all voting to be done by paper ballot, which the counties are already equipped for,” she told IPS.

Although nearly one-third of U.S. voters will use touch-screen machines in the election, only the state of Nevada has installed printers that allow people to view the ballot before it is cast, and that provide a tangible record for election officials.

Also, according to the Electionline report, nearly every state is suffering from a shortage of trained poll workers. Requirements by 17 states to demand identification from new voters could sow confusion and end up disenfranchising a disproportionate number of poor people.

Still, the report's authors believe there is reason for optimism.

”American voters return to the polls a changed breed -- better informed, wiser to the strengths and weaknesses of the electoral process and more willing to ask questions and/or complain when things fail to go right,” they note.

”This change in voter awareness could have tremendous impact on the perceived success or failure of election reform since 2000.”

© Copyright 2004 IPS - Inter Press Service

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