Come Election Day, it could be déjà vu all over again.
After a 2000 presidential election in which faulty ballots and disputed voting resulted in the intervention of the Supreme Court, and a 2004 contest with allegations of voting-machine errors in the crucial swing state of Ohio, there are already several brewing controversies that could cause the election to last beyond November 4.
From the weekend arrest of a California man who officials allege hired workers to trick tens of thousands of voters into registering as Republicans, to claims that scores of Florida college students and minorities have been kicked off voter rolls because of a controversial "no match, no vote" measure that requires driver's-license or Social Security numbers to match those in government databases, the potential for fraud is ripe.
Here are some of the other possible Election Day time bombs:
The ACORN Accusation
What's the issue?: The campaign of Republican Senator John McCain has been trying to tie rival Senator Barack Obama's camp to ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now), which has been accused of some questionable voter-registration drives in several swing states (Colorado, Indiana and North Carolina among them). ACORN — which has long been a target of conservatives — claims to have registered 1.3 million people to vote and denies accusations of voter fraud, which include claims that the group tried to register dead or nonexistent voters.
Potential headaches: Some Republican activists have claimed that ACORN is openly adding convicted felons and illegal aliens to the voting rolls — and counting among its 80,000 newly registered voters in Nevada one "Tony Romo," which also happens to be the name of the Dallas Cowboys' quarterback. ACORN has hit back, saying that the Romo registration was probably a prank and that it's not voter fraud unless you show up on Election Day and try to pass yourself off as Jessica Simpson's honey. ACORN also asserts that the number of questionable new registrants was, at most, 10,000, and the organization says none of those will likely lead to any legitimate votes. There have also been break-ins at ACORN offices resulting in the theft of voting records and death threats to employees. The FBI and several states are investigating voter-registration cards with the names of the deceased or fictional characters. ACORN says those registrations will be thrown out and the phony votes won't be cast.
Legitimate Voters Get Left Out
What's the issue?: The head of the Social Security Administration has sent letters to Indiana officials expressing concern that the state is using Social Security numbers to determine voter eligibility at a level that "appears to be much greater than one would expect," according to the Indianapolis Star. State officials, though, have downplayed the complaints and said they're a symptom of the intense scrutiny on this year's election and that nothing irregular is going on. Among the discrepancies are claims that there are more registered voters in Marion County than voting-age residents, which officials explain by saying that the state failed to purge 90,000 inactive names in 2006.
Potential headache: Voter lists cannot be purged within 90 days of an election, so it's possible those names could become a legal quagmire, should the election hinge on the votes in Indiana.
Extra Stamps Could Mean Extra Headaches
What's the issue?: Florida, which has developed a well-deserved reputation as the go-to swing state with the potential to make or break campaigns — often due to unforeseen voting issues — is at it again. The Orlando Sentinel recently warned absentee voters that the ballots for the November 4 election are so long and heavy that mailing them back to elections supervisors could require extra postage totaling up to $1.17. One voter worried that because she didn't read the instructions on her ballot closely enough for the primary election — and didn't realize it cost 59 cents to mail instead of the regular 42 cents — her ballot might not have counted.
Potential headache: While the U.S. Postal Service typically returns mail with insufficient postage — and some elections offices have arranged to cover the additional postage — with record numbers of registered voters in some areas requesting the ballots, some of those with insufficient postage might not arrive in time. If the election is as close as it has been — President Bush won the 2000 election thanks to 537 votes in Florida — some of that missing postage could be a pivotal issue.
To Check or Not to Check
What's the issue?: Like Florida, Ohio has become one of the key battleground states in recent elections. And, also like Florida, the state has a recent history of voting irregularities and squabbles about which voters are qualified to cast ballots. The 2004 election was plagued by charges that then-Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, a Republican, tried to disenfranchise voters by ordering that those whose registration could not be confirmed be given only a provisional ballot, and if it was later determined they had tried to vote in the wrong precinct, their vote wouldn't count. The move was seen as potentially disenfranchising to lower-income minority voters who were more likely to vote Democratic. Now, Democratic Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner — whose Web site was hacked on Tuesday (October 21) and who has received death threats — has been accused of attempting to disenfranchise Republican voters. According to the Cincinnati Enquirer, Brunner has attempted to ban 1 million applications for absentee ballots sent to voters by the McCain campaign by ordering state registrars to reject the applications if the voters did not check a box on it that read, "I am a qualified elector," claiming that the unchecked box left the board of elections without any proof that the applicant was a qualified voter.
Potential headache: The Ohio Supreme Court recently rejected Brunner's efforts, but on Friday, a federal appeals court sided with her over a lawsuit from Republicans that sought to create a new computer program to verify the eligibility of newly registered voters against existing state databases. Another potential dispute on the horizon could arise over this year's decision to allow same-day voter registration and voting in Ohio. The state GOP has argued in several lawsuits that Ohio law requires voters to have been registered for 30 days before casting an absentee ballot, but a judge sided with Brunner in allowing the same-day voting. Each new day, it seems, brings another lawsuit in the ongoing battle. Similar voter verification problems are also bubbling up in Georgia.
What's the issue?: Not that this Freudian slip hasn't already happened several times to TV pundits and even presidential candidates, but a printing error in upstate New York resulted in 300 absentee ballots being sent to voters in Rensselear County that had Barack Obama's last name spelled "Osama." Officials — one of whom received a misprinted ballot and said he didn't notice the misspelling — insisted that the mistake was an innocent typographical error that somehow slipped past three different proofreaders.
Potential headache: New ballots were issued to the voters immediately, so in theory, there will be no mishaps with the misprints.
Checks and Balances
What's the issue?: In Colorado, more than 6,400 voters are ineligible to vote because they failed to check a box on their registration forms when they registered without a state ID or driver's license. Republican Secretary of State Mike Coffman is insisting that an unchecked box means an incomplete form and that voters have to fill out the form again.
Potential headache: Coffman originally said the resubmitted forms had to be in before October 6 but has now allowed for them to come in anytime before Election Day, saying the first date was announced in error. Some voter-registration groups are claiming that officials in Coffman's office specifically told them the box didn't need to be checked, claiming that the confusion could erase votes. Voters who don't re-register can cast provisional ballots, but since those ballots often involve additional verification, they are frequently discounted.
Not OK Computer
What's the issue?: Following allegations that systematic flaws in the new electronic voting machines in the 2004 presidential election may have impacted results, a recent study by Common Cause found that there are still widespread issues with the machines in a number of states.
Potential headache: Of the 24 states using voting machines, eight reportedly have no requirement to stock emergency paper ballots in case of machine failures, and 10 states don't have proper procedures to make sure every vote is counted.
What's the issue?: According to a recent New York Times report, tens of thousands of voters in at least six swing states appear to have been removed from voting rolls — or blocked from registering — as a result of mistakes in handling the registrations and voter files in an attempt to comply with the 2002 "Help America Vote Act," intended to overhaul how elections are run.
Potential headache: While the Times said there was no appearance of the voter purges being coordinated by either party, because Democrats have been more aggressive in registering new voters this year, any extra screening of new applications could disproportionately affect their party's supporters. And, in at least six important swing states — Colorado, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Nevada and North Carolina — the purges could result in problems on Election Day if people who've been removed from the rolls show up to vote and get challenged by party officials or election workers and cause long lines, confusion or tempers to spike.
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