- The Washington Times - Monday, October 25, 2004

RICHMOND — They volunteer for a workday 15 to 20 hours long helping people vote and then tallying the results, and they have seen it all — from polling-place bomb scares to evacuations because of gas leaks.

But with this year’s presidential election under a microscope as never before, full-time and volunteer election officials across the state face new pressures and irritations:

• Partisan lawyers lurking outside voting precincts and spoiling for a fight over election irregularities real or perceived.

• Police at polling places and civil libertarians likening their presence to the Jim Crow era.

• An unprecedented increase in voter registrations and an absentee vote likely to eclipse anything election workers have seen before.

“This one is very emotionally charged,” said J. Kirk Showalter, the voter registrar in Richmond, a city expecting its highest turnout ever for the presidential race and a mayoral election featuring a former governor.

In an election so big, mistakes are inevitable, she said. “With the volume of volunteer election officers we have, obviously someone somewhere is going to make a goof.”

But having attorneys for a political party poised to pounce on voter complaints, registrars say, is likely to aggravate the situation.

“If you want to talk about intimidation, there’s intimidation,” said Chesterfield County registrar Larry Haake. “These lawyers are going to be trying to intimidate our workers in the field. These workers volunteer to come in and perform a civic duty, but they’re going to have all these lawyers looking over their shoulders.”

Mr. Haake sees nothing intimidating about uniformed and armed police officers at polling places — Chesterfield County’s response to fears that terrorists might try to disrupt the elections.

The American Civil Liberties Union on Thursday wrote in a letter to Mr. Haake that a conspicuous police presence evokes “armed officers and other government officials mustered throughout the South to prevent minorities from registering and voting.”

Virginia Democrats announced plans last week to assign as many as 600 lawyers to targeted precincts on Nov. 2. Republicans also will have lawyers ready, but the party has not released details.

“It’s a bit disappointing with the Democratic Party putting lawyers at the polling places,” Miss Showalter said.

This year’s legal scrutiny and the prospect that lawsuits could snag the election before the polls even close pick up where the 2000 Florida vote dispute left off.

George W. Bush was declared the winner 36 days after the election when a U.S. Supreme Court ruling halted Florida’s litigious recount.

Registrars and election professionals know the stakes.

Their response has been even more exhaustive preparation and training for election workers, several said in interviews.

That ranges from top-to-bottom checks of the 22 different types of voting machines to be used statewide to federal election law changes enacted after the Florida debacle.

Some confusion is inevitable this year because it’s the first presidential race since the constitutionally mandated redrawing of political jurisdictions in 2001 to reflect population shifts from the 2000 census.

People will show up at the wrong polling places, or they will arrive without identification, said State Board of Elections Secretary Jean Jensen.

It’s up to volunteer election officers to resolve those problems and keep the vote running smoothly.

Training is extensive and mandatory.

Many election workers are retired, and they have the advantage of generally being unflappable, Miss Jensen said.

“The challenge is training them in changes in the law,” she said.

Among the changes in the 2002 Help America Vote Act is a requirement that voters not found on poll books be allowed to cast “provisional ballots.”

If local election officials discover the voter was registered, the ballot is counted; if not, it is discarded.

“That’s been around for a long time,” said Kenny Cade, who will be the chief election officer at Chesterfield County’s Deer Run precinct.

Virginia introduced “conditional ballots” in the 1970s.

About 4.5 million voters will be on Virginia’s rolls for this year’s election, an increase of more than 400,000, or 11 percent, over the 2000 presidential race.

There also will be more absentee ballots for election officers to add to the Election Day totals after the polls close at 7 p.m.

As of Wednesday, 156,187 Virginians had applied for absentee ballots, and 56,365 already had returned them. That compares with about 150,000 absentee voters four years ago.

This year’s absentee application deadline is Thursday, and the deadline for casting absentee ballots is Saturday.

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