LAS VEGAS — Broke, disabled and living at the Daisy Motel in downtown Las Vegas, Tyrone Mrasek Sr. took a temporary job late this summer registering voters here.
The employer primarily wanted President Bush supporters, but they were not easy to find. So Mrasek handed out cigarettes to drunks and ex-felons at a homeless shelter in exchange for signatures. Later he found a stack of signed registrations for Democratic voters in a trash can outside the company's office, he recalled.
"They had some shady things going on," Mrasek said.
Partisan registration drives have swept through battleground states such as Nevada, Ohio and New Mexico. Hundreds of thousands of new registrations have poured into county and state offices and strained the systems in these states.
But as workers closely examined some forms, they found clear cases of fraud. In some instances, stacks of registrations had the same handwriting. In others, names were lifted from phone books and signatures forged. And many of the new registrations were duplicates of already registered voters.
Financed by political parties, wealthy advocacy groups and grass-roots organizations, liberal and conservative organizations have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to register voters. The crush, along with the irregular registrations, have bred chaos across the nation.
"We were getting stacks of forms with identical handwriting," said Harvard L. Lomax, registrar of voters in Clark County here. "We were getting calls from people wanting to know why they were getting registration forms when they hadn't asked for one. If you went to a DMV office over the last five months, you were mobbed by people trying to register you, claiming they were working for us. It was obvious it was fraud."
The presidential outcome is expected to be very close, and voter registration fraud could well become this year's hanging chad. If so, it will be an issue that the losing party can seize upon to argue in the courts that the election was flawed.
After the disputed 2000 presidential election, new federal rules were supposed to ensure that registration lists were more accurate and current. Congress passed the Help America Vote Act in 2002, requiring every state to have a computerized statewide registration list that would be instantly updated with each new registration.
But 37 states have failed to meet the new standards and sought waivers from the federal government, said Rebecca Vigil-Giron, secretary of state in New Mexico and president of the association that represents other secretaries.
"A lot of states do not have good data systems," she said.
California officials are relying on an older registration computer system but hope to have a new list by 2006 that complies with federal law. It will cost $40 million to implement, said Tony Miller, special counsel to the secretary of state.
Many state officials acknowledge that their systems and laws need to be tightened. Under Oregon law, for example, outside organizations can hire temporary workers and pay them for each new registration. In Nevada, temporary workers may be paid by the hour but not for individual registrations.
"You are creating incentives for fraud if you pay by the signature," said Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury.
In Alabama, counties have a big backlog of last-minute registrations, and discrepancies in the records have left them unsure how many voters are on the rolls. Last week, Anita Tatum, director of the office of voter registration, resigned after she could not explain the discrepancies.
In Ohio, the Republican Party is challenging about 25,000 new registrations. David Beckwith, a GOP spokesman in Ohio, said there were a number of "Democratic front groups" holding registration drives in the region and that "the fraud accusations have been worse than in 40 years."
He said multiple Democratic registration forms were signed "in the same hand," Democratic signatures were traded for "cash or crack cocaine," and a woman's husband, dead for 20 years, was registered in the Cleveland area.
"This has been sloppy and haphazard," Beckwith said.
Liberal groups such as America Coming Together, formed in 2003 with 300,000 donors, amassed a $125-million budget for registering voters, spokeswoman Sara Leonard said. Much of the money flowed down to local organizations that hired temporary workers. Another liberal group, America Votes, a coalition of 33 organizations led by powerful unions and environmental groups, built up a $400-million budget, part of which went to registrations.
Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee has funded one company at the center of allegations, Voter Outreach of America Inc., which is active in Las Vegas and across the nation. It was set up by Nathan Sproul, former chairman of the Arizona Republican Party.