- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 5, 2008

UPDATED:

Reports of long lines at the polls, malfunctioning voting machines and ballot shortages came from several states Tuesday morning as the 2008 elections kicked off, including problems in the battleground states of Virginia, Florida and Pennsylvania.

“Unfortunately, this is what we expected,” said Jonah Goldman, director of the National Campaign for Fair Elections. “We knew these problems were going to happen.”

Virginia, which typically votes Republican but has become a battleground state this year, epitomizes many of the problems. The state’s election mechanisms are not equipped for the expected record turnout in a contentious race, and not allowing early voting compounds the problem, Mr. Goldman said.

Virginia has already seen legal challenges from both sides. Some polling places are either completely closed or have been closed for hours. Thousands of voters may have been turned away, while others have been issued provisional ballets where machines have been broken.

Students at Virginia Tech saw their polling place unexpectedly moved six miles to a location with little parking, according to Election Protection, a non-partisan voter protection coalition led by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

The campaign of Republican presidential candidate Sen John McCain has sued state election officials, claiming absentee ballots weren’t mailed on time to overseas military personnel, many of whom are likely to vote for the Arizona Senator.

The absentee ballots must be received today to be counted, but the suit seeks that any ballot postmarked today and received by Nov. 14 is counted, according to Ashley L. Taylor Jr., the lawyer representing the campaign. A hearing in the case has been scheduled for 2 p.m. in U.S. District Court in Richmond.

Robert Carey of the National Defense Committee said the military’s slow mail system creates major problems for absentee voting and denies many military personnel the right to vote. He said the Virginia ballots should have been sent 45 days ago, but some were postmarked as recently as Oct. 7.

“The fact of the matter is even 45 days is hardly adequate,” Mr. Carey said. “I think it needs to be upwards of 60 or 90 days.” Today’s hearing will be held by the same judge who denied a request Monday from the NAACP for extended voting hours and additional voting machines in minority areas because of anticipated turnout.

Election Protection, a nonpartisan coalition of voting rights group, reports that three states have experienced last-minute voting problems: voters in Tampa and St. Petersburg, Fla., have been turned away because of incomplete registrations; broken voting machines in Pennsylvania, particularly in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, have led to some voters having to case provisional ballots and others being turned away from the polls; and new voters who registered by mail in New Jersey are being forced to cast provisional ballots because there signatures are not included in poll books.

Despite these problems, the group said it has not yet received any reports of voter fraud or voter suppression at the polls.

“We are actually very happy with what we see so far,” Jenny Backus, a spokeswoman for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama. “By and large, we’ve been very happy with how everything is working today, and very happy what we’ve seen with turnout.”

Accusations of both emerged in the weeks leading up to the election with conservatives charging voter fraud and Democrats countering with accusations of voter intimidation or suppression.

Election Protection said new voters and voters in predominately minority neighborhoods have received robocalls and fliers indicating the wrong time and place to vote. According to the group, this has happened in Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina, Florida and Louisiana.

Republicans have focused much of their attention on Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), a liberal community organization with links to Mr. Obama. Revelations that the group has submitted fictitious or duplicative registrations applications led to investigations in several states and concerns that fraudulent registrations could lay the groundwork for massive voter fraud to help Mr. Obama. ACORN said it collected 1.3 million voter registration applications, many from low-income blacks and Hispanics, in 21 states.

J. Gerald Hebert, who spent nearly 21 years in the Justice Department’s voting section and served for a short time as its acting chief, said actual cases of voter fraud is rare. Mr. Hebert, executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, anticipated more problems stemming from the Help America Vote Act, which passed in 2002 partly in response to the controversy surrounding the presidential election two years earlier.

Voter registration databases created as a result have mismatches when compared to other databases, such as the Social Security Administration, he said. Some of these discrepancies may be evidence that a person should not be allowed to vote, such as a person who no longer lives in the district where they are trying to vote.

Accusations of voter fraud and voter intimidation began surfacing weeks ago, and it is now up to the Justice Department to ensure that neither takes place.

“The Department of Justice will do all it can to help ensure that elections run as smoothly as possible […] and, equally important, that the American people have confidence in our electoral process,” Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey said.

“On November 4, hundreds of Department of Justice lawyers, monitors and observers will be working throughout the country to help make sure that all Americans who are entitled to vote are able to do so, and that the elections accurately represent the will of the people,” he said.

It falls to the Justice Department to investigate and prosecute accusations of voter fraud, and to that end, it has sent 800 election observers and monitors to 23 states, including battleground states such as Virginia, Indiana and Ohio. Their job is to make sure voters are not intimidated or have their ballots challenged because of race, religion or national origin.

The nation’s 94 U.S. attorneys’ offices and 56 FBI field offices will handle complaints of voter fraud made in their districts. Those complaints can also be made to the Justice Department’s Public Integrity Section, which can be reached at 202/514-1412.

Christian Bellantoni contributed to this article.

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