Republican Dirty Tricks
Ahead Of Election

By Andrew Gumbel in Los Angeles
The Independent - UK
Three days before America's most important election in decades, the country is praying that chaos will not ensue this time, and the world's so-called beacon of democracy will not have to ask the Supreme Court again to decide who will be President.
Things have already started to go wrong. In Florida, 60,000 absentee ballots in a predominantly Democratic county have vanished without trace, and are only partly being replaced after a public outcry.
In Ohio, the Republican Party is trying to have 35,000 new voters thrown off the rolls on the mere suspicion their paperwork is not ship-shape. In Nevada and Oregon, police have pulled the voter registration forms of hundreds of declared Democrats out of rubbish bins, where they were allegedly thrown by employees of a Republican consulting firm posing as a non-partisan voting rights organisation.
In several states, the Republican Party intends to post thousands of vote "challengers" in polling stations, a technique historically associated with efforts to suppress the black vote in the segregationist Deep South. In Michigan, which has a huge urban black population, a Republican state senator has said: "If we do not suppress the Detroit vote, we're going to have a tough time in this election."
Welcome to the presidential race of 2004, where the stakes are so high and the fighting so fierce the system is starting to break down before a single vote has been counted. Unlike last time, when a nail-bitingly close race in Florida led to a 36-day legal battle, the lawyers are out in force well ahead of election day and the lawsuits are already flying - 11 in Florida alone.
With them has come a torrent of accusations of vote fraud, voter suppression and abuse of power by election officials. Problems seem inevitable, not only because of the furious battles waged over the management of absentee ballots, provisional ballots, voter rolls and other bureaucratic arcana, but also because the new generation of electronic voting machines replacing the reviled old punchcards have been shown to be unreliable, unverifiable and alarmingly prone to malicious intervention.
What we do not yet know and cannot know until Tuesday night is whether the dysfunctions of the world's most powerful democracy will interfere with the outcome of the presidential contest. At first blush, it seems most improbable that the election could turn, once again, on a few hundred votes in a crucial swing state.
On the other hand, the polls indicate a race every bit as close as Bush versus Gore. And it is important to remember that Florida was far from the only problem last time.
In four states - Florida, New Hampshire, New Mexico and Oregon - the number of disqualified ballots exceeded the margin of victory, making them ripe for recount battles. The reason we heard only about Florida was the others did not control enough electoral votes to sway the outcome.
Overall, two million votes went uncounted in 2000 because of spoiled, unmarked or uncounted ballots. When you include the number turned away from the polls for reasons of bureaucratic incompetence or intimidation, the number of voters barred from exercising their franchise mushrooms to between four and six million.
Could it be as bad this time? In some ways, it could be worse, especially if the race is tight and the margins of victory in two or more swing states are below 0.5 per cent. With thousands of lawyers fanned out across the country, there is every prospect that this election will, like the last one, be settled in court.
Some things have improved since 2000. Every state is now obliged to organise provisional balloting in case of questions about a voter's eligibility on polling day. Early voting has expanded enormously, relieving the pressure on election day. Perhaps most importantly, people are more aware of the problems and are monitoring the process with vigilance.
But any trust between the parties has been poisoned. The Republicans accuse the Democrats of trying to fatten the voter rolls with non-citizens, felons, dead people, fictional characters and cats; Democrats accuse Republicans of trying to suppress legal votes and using racist tactics to keep black voters away.
But, one Associated Press poll found most voters assume voting will conclude with a legal battle. Two-thirds of Democrats and 56 per cent of Republicans expect to wake on Wednesday to find the race unresolved.
Get-out-the-vote drives by both camps will attract hundreds of thousands of new voters. But will their names be on the rolls in time? Meanwhile, the Republicans claim that many voters have been fraudulently or incorrectly registered and are challenging 35,000 new registrations in Ohio alone. In Oregon and Nevada, a Republican-linked firm has been accused of throwing away thousands of new Democrat registrations.
In 2000, it was alleged that police officers were used at polling stations to scare away voters from Democrat-leaning minority groups. This time, both parties will dispatch crowds of volunteers to polling stations, in theory to monitor the process. But each side says the other will use them to scare away rival voters. "If no signs of intimidation have emerged yet, launch a pre-emptive strike," advises one Democrat handbook.
After the "hanging chads" nightmare in 2000, many states have invested in electronic voting machines. But these may introduce new problems. None has been tested in a presidential election. In the event of recounts, few produce a paper record of votes, which will make verification difficult. Other risks include malfunctioningmachines or computer servers, and the possibility that outsiders could hack into the system.
Record numbers of absentee ballots are being returned from overseas. Counting them could attract a landslide of challenges. But what happens in states where Ralph Nader has only recently been disqualified although thousands have already voted for him? In Florida,it was alleged this week that 60,000 Broward Countyballots were never delivered. Officials are scrambling to send them out again. Will they arrive in time? Will some people get two?
A new federal law encourages states to issue provisional voting status to people whose status as bona fide voters is for some reason in dispute (say, if their names are not on the rolls) on election day. But some details have not been settled. For instance, if a provisional ballot is cast at the wrong precinct, should it count or not? Lawsuits are already flying in both directions in several states over this particular issue.
Civil rights groups say some states are using "purge" lists (which bar anyone with a criminal record from voting) that will also prevent legitimate voters from casting ballots. About five million Americans have had their voting rights stripped in this way. Florida tried to revamp its purge list after flaws were revealed in 2000, but gave up. More than 2,000 Floridians are now challenging determinations that they cannot vote.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd



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