Monday, October 25, 2004

Florida elections chief Dawn Roberts has warned the state’s 67 election supervisors to be on the alert for observers at polling places who might use strong-arm tactics or otherwise harass or improperly assist potential voters in the Nov. 2 presidential election.

“You have the right and obligation to set reasonable time, place and manner restrictions with respect to ‘observers’ in and around the voting site,” Mrs. Roberts, the state’s elections division director, wrote in a memo circulated Friday.

Both Republicans and Democrats have accused each other of voter harassment and have issued strong warnings nationwide — particularly in the hotly contested race in Florida — against voter intimidation. Each side is training poll watchers on how to spot improper behavior by poll clerks, malfunctioning voting machines, and whether the polls are opening and closing on time.

An unprecedented number of Republican and Democratic poll watchers are expected at voting precincts throughout Florida, whose 25 Electoral College votes ultimately decided the 2000 presidential election after a Supreme Court ruling. Florida law allows each party and candidate to post an observer at each polling place. All observers must be registered voters.

On Sunday, former Vice President Al Gore told black voters in Jacksonville, Fla., who still might be angry over his narrow 2000 defeat not to let their concern “turn into angry acts or angry words,” and instead to channel their anger “into energy at the polls.”

Mr. Gore lost Florida by 537 votes, when the Supreme Court ordered that a recount of votes be halted. The state has 27 Electoral College votes up for grabs this year.

“Turn all of that energy and all of these feelings into a nonstop effort between now and the time the polls close at 7 p.m. on November 2,” he said. “If anybody ever tells you that one vote doesn’t count, you tell them to come talk to me.”

Mr. Gore’s comments came on the same day that Elizabeth Edwards, wife of Democratic vice-presidential candidate Sen. John Edwards, said the election would not result in riots if it ended in a victory for Sen. John Kerry. Mrs. Edwards’ assertion was in response to a supporter at an event in Pennsylvania who expressed fears that the election result will produce riots.

“Uh … well … not if we win,” Mrs. Edwards said in an exchange aired on C-SPAN.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, an effort by state Republicans to send letters to 130,000 newly registered voters asking them to support Republican candidates resulted in 10,000 being returned because there was “no such number” or “no such persons” at the address.

Christian Marrone, legal counsel to Pennsylvania Republicans, said some of the new registrations listed vacant lots as addresses, and others went to boarded-up buildings. He said there was “some serious fraud taking place.”

In a related matter, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) has asked Attorney General John Ashcroft to refrain from issuing directives and communications that could deter voters, saying Justice Department policy clearly shows that voter fraud investigations or the threat of them can lead to voter suppression.

LCCR officials urged Mr. Ashcroft to tell U.S. attorneys nationwide that press releases about efforts to preserve voting integrity should simply provide contact information, rather than outline penalties and types of activities vulnerable to fraud. They said the releases could “scare some voters off or cause them not to seek legitimate help.”

“We are concerned that the Justice Department is more focused on potential voter fraud than voter intimidation or vote suppression,” said Wade Henderson, LCCR executive director.

“We are particularly uneasy about reports of the issuance of a memorandum sent to all 93 U.S. attorneys requiring that they send out a press release ‘immediately prior to the November elections’ that will ‘advise citizens of the department’s interest in deterring voting rights abuses and fraud during these elections.’”

LCCR also reiterated its concerns about the need to protect the voting rights of blacks, Hispanics, American Indians, Asians and other minorities, urging Mr. Ashcroft to “reach out to election officials across the country to ensure they are doing all they can to combat efforts to intimidate minority voters.”

“More than anything, America needs a clean and fair election,” Mr. Henderson said, adding that it was the “responsibility of the Justice Department and the attorney general to make sure citizens are not deprived of their voting rights.”

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