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Poll monitors prepare for worst

Nov. 3, 2004

By DEBORAH HASTINGS, associated press

Machines malfunctioned, tempers flared and edgy voters often waited hours Tuesday to pick a president in a contentious race watched by thousands of monitors expecting the worst.

By nightfall on the East Coast, several local snafus had been reported but no widespread allegations of voting problems emerged.

"So far, it's no big, but lots of littles," said Doug Chapin, director of the Election Reform Information Project, a nonpartisan research group. "We know of no major meltdowns anywhere along the lines some people were worried about."

Robyn Kenagy | Lariat staff
McLennan County residents and Baylor University students crowded in and outside the Wiethorn Visitors Center on campus Tuesday to vote in the 2004 elections.
Hyper-vigilance appeared to be the order of the day, which in some states prompted poll closures and unfounded complaints. In New Jersey, for example, a suspicious substance later determined to be spilled salt prompted the two-hour closure of a Mount Laurel precinct.

In Pennsylvania, zealous GOP election monitors complained that some Philadelphia voting machines already had thousands of recorded votes when the polls opened at 7 a.m. Local election officials quickly explained that voting machines registered every vote ever cast on them and that did not constitute evidence of fraud.

"It's absolutely ridiculous," said Deputy City Commissioner Ed Schulgen.

In Colorado, Republican Party officials said a lawyer for the Democrats showed up at an Eagle County precinct with a list of registered GOP voters, planning to challenge them all. Democrats admitted it was true.

In other closely contested states -- including Iowa and Michigan -- the liberal group was accused of disrupting local precincts. In Ohio, a woman filed a lawsuit on behalf of voters who didn't receive absentee ballots on time, asking they be allowed to cast provisional ballots.

Later in the day, a Toledo federal judge granted her wish.

In Wisconsin, the Republicans said vandals spray-painted the words "Illegitimate Democracy" on the outside of their state headquarters, while police said the tires of about 20 get-out-the-vote vehicles leased by the GOP were slashed in Milwaukee.

New touch-screen voting machines, which have been criticized by computer scientists and election officials in various states as susceptible to hacking and malfunction, were used Tuesday in 29 states and the District of Columbia.

Only in Nevada, for this election, did the machines produce the paper records that make recounts reliable.

In Florida, which gave the 2000 election to George W. Bush on the basis of 537 votes, ten touch-screen voting machines failed at various precincts in Broward County. Nearly half the state's voters were using the ATM-like machines.

Tuesday's high voter turnout could bring "more confusion to already overburdened, understaffed polling places," Pingree said.

And many of those places, she added, "will have as many lawyers and poll challengers as they have people voting."

Tensions flared early at many of those sites.

A Democratic official in Cleveland claimed he was thrown out of a church basement by a screaming poll judge. Another judge allowed him to return.

In Florida, two Bush supporters filed a lawsuit seeking at least $15,000 in damages, claiming they were punched, pushed, shoved and spat on by Democrats.

Provisional ballots, new this election, also prompted disaster fears because they could delay any recount efforts.

Any voter whose name does not appear on precinct rolls is entitled to cast a provisional ballot.

Elections officials must individually certify them as being cast by registered voters before they can be counted.

A lawyer for Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry's campaign said some Pennsylvania voters were prevented from voting when at least a dozen Allegheny County precincts ran out of provisional ballots.

More ballots were on their way, and voters were encouraged to return later in the day.

In more than a dozen states, election officials missed the recommended deadline for mailing absentee ballots overseas, meaning soldiers risking their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan might not get them in time to vote.