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Vote watchdogs warn of troubles on election day

October 30, 2008|Carol J. Williams and Noam N. Levey | Williams and Levey are Times staff writers.
  • People check in with election workers to vote early at the Meadows Mall October 29 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
People check in with election workers to vote early at the Meadows Mall October… (Ethan Miller / Getty Images )

LOS ANGELES — Counting down to an election day expected to draw a record-shattering turnout, voting-rights watchdogs are sounding the alarm that a repeat of the Florida fiasco of 2000 could occur in any of a dozen battleground states.

Lawsuits are already flying in many of these states.

Voting rights advocates in Colorado, to take just one example, told a federal judge Wednesday that the names of nearly 30,000 voters were recently purged from the state registry in violation of federal law and ought to be restored by election day. In a compromise, those voters will be allowed to cast provisional ballots.

Across the battleground states, where Democrats had a 2-1 advantage in new registrations, voting-rights groups contend the eleventh-hour verifications demanded by Republican officials are attempts to disenfranchise the new voters.

The flood of millions of first-time voters could lead to crowded and contentious polling places across the country, triggering last-minute identity checks that could deny ballots to those whose names or addresses don't match other government records.

"This one is the meltdown scenario," said Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the Ad vancement Project founded by civil rights lawyers to pursue racial justice.

Common Cause, the American Bar Assn., the League of Women Voters and a phalanx of other public interest groups are urging states to ensure that the polls are adequately staffed to handle an onslaught bolstered by millions of newly registered voters.

Voting advocates are worried about its effect in states like Virginia, which has one of the lowest ratios of voting machines to registered voters.

"Voters will simply walk away if the lines are too long," warned Susannah Goodman, who directs the election reform program at Common Cause, a campaign reform group based in Washington. "They don't want to, but they may have a job they have to get to, and they have to go."

Congress enacted the Help America Vote Act in 2002 in response to the Florida debacle two years earlier. The law provided $3 billion for new equipment and statewide registries, but the sheer volume of new voters has overwhelmed efforts to verify their eligibility.

Litigation brought in recent weeks in Ohio, Georgia, Florida and Colorado may serve to alert voters that they may be challenged. But in many states, the verification methods have created more obstacles than they have removed.

In Florida, an aggressive "no match, no vote" standard has been applied to question whether more than 10,000 of those who have registered since Jan. 1 should be given ballots despite discrepancies between their registration information and other government records, said Tova Wang, vice president for research at Common Cause.

Voting rights groups, both nonpartisan and Democrat-aligned, have compiled lists of vulnerable voters and tried to track them down.

"We're engaged in protecting voters from being disenfranchised by virtue of typos and clerical errors," said Adam Skaggs, an attorney with New York University's Brennan Center for Justice.

He said that the likelihood of fraud has been "vastly inflated" and that discrepancies are overwhelmingly the result of innocent mistakes or outdated voter registries.

In Montana, authorities recently sought to drop 6,000 voters from the rolls because of address changes, including soldiers deployed to Iraq, Skaggs noted.

A Brennan Center study of ballot designs found problems in North Carolina, where voters who choose a one-touch straight-party option on voting machines may not notice that the presidential race isn't included and requires a separate vote. In Ohio, the candidates for the top office are split between two pages, which could lead some voters to invalidate their ballots by choosing one on each.

In Georgia, the voter registry has been scrutinized for potential noncitizen entries, and thousands of people -- most with Latino names -- have been flagged for identity checks if they seek to cast a ballot.

Lawsuits challenging election officials' plans to deny ballots in cases of mismatches in at least six states have been shot down by the courts. But appeals are in the works, and concerns over access persist in most of the states analysts consider a toss-up.

"I think we're still going to see a lot of problems, in part because some voters aren't going to find out until election day that they've been dropped from the rolls," said Rick Hasen, a professor of election law at Loyola Law School. "I expect this to happen in Florida, where they had a very aggressive no match, no vote policy."

Citing news reports from Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Florida, the community activist group ACORN warned last week that Republican officials in those states had hinted at intentions to scan foreclosure filings to identify voters who are no longer living at the address on their registration.

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