FBI probing reports of dirty tricks as poll workers struggle with machine problems

Tuesday, November 7th 2006, 8:20 pm
By: News On 6

While new voting machines confounded some poll workers, reports of dirty tricks and voter intimidation surfaced across the nation Tuesday, prompting federal investigations in at least two states.

In Virginia, the FBI was looking at complaints of voter intimidation in the hard fought U.S. Senate race between Republican George Allen and Democrat Jim Webb. Some voters reported they got calls encouraging them to stay home on Election Day. Others said they were directed to the wrong polling place.

In Indiana, the FBI was investigating allegations that a Democratic volunteer at a polling site in the college town of Bloomington was found with unprocessed absentee ballots after counting had begun.

Other states reported similar problems.

In Arizona, three men, one of them armed, stopped Hispanic voters and questioned them outside a Tucson polling place, according to voting monitors for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which photographed the incidents and reported them to the FBI.

In Maryland, sample ballots suggesting Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich and Senate candidate Michael Steele were Democrats were handed out by people bused in from out of state. Democrats outnumber Republicans in Maryland by nearly 2-to-1.

An Ehrlich spokeswoman said the fliers were meant to show the candidates had the support of some state Democrats. They were paid for by the campaigns of Ehrlich, Steel and the GOP. Some of the fliers include pictures of Ehrlich with Democrat Kweisi Mfume, a former NAACP president.

More than 80 percent of the nation's voters were expected to cast some type of electronic ballot Tuesday, which was the deadline for major reforms mandated by the federal Help America Vote Act, passed by Congress to prevent a rerun of the 2000 election debacle.

Across the country, Democrats accused Republicans of sponsoring automated ``robo-calls'' that have infuriated voters. The recorded calls, which reached a fever pitch in the days leading up to the election, automatically dial and re-redial, promoting or trashing a candidate.

Republicans have denied responsibility. Some voters have reported being awakened in the middle of the night by such calls, and said that after they hung up, the phone rang again. Federal rules bar election phone solicitations after 9 p.m.

In some states, the effort to improve the integrity of the election system got off to a shaky start. Long lines formed, prompting appeals to judges to keep the polls open longer.

Kevin Caffrey, a 43 year old school teacher from Denver and a registered Republican, was furious after he was forced to stand in line for more than an hour.

``Every individual who put me in line, I'm voting against them. I've been waiting in line like an animal. This is a nightmare,'' he said.

In Denver, up to 300 people stood outside some polling sites. One was Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Ritter, who waited an hour and 40 minutes.

``It's actually heartening,'' he said. It means people ``understand the process is important enough to be patient and wait in line.'' Nonetheless, Democratic Party officials asked a judge to extend poll hours because of the delays.

A long ballot and new machines caused the disruptions, according to Colorado secretary of state spokeswoman Lisa Doran. ``Despite the training, some of the election judges are intimidated by the machines,'' she said.

Computer glitches and poll workers' unfamiliarity with the new equipment were also blamed for long lines in such states as Tennessee, South Carolina and Illinois.

Some politicians, and their offspring, got turned away from the polls.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters at a campaign stop near her home in Chappaqua that her daughter, Chelsea, had been turned away at a Manhattan polling site because her name did not appear in a book of registered voters. She was offered an affidavit vote, similar to provisional ballots used in other states.

In South Carolina, Gov. Mark Sanford was turned away because he didn't have a voter registration card. He went back with the right identification.

But as Election Day wore on, none of the stumbles seemed to signal a voting disaster, according to poll watchers.

``Lots of fender-benders, but no major tie-ups,'' said Doug Chapin, director of electionline.org, a nonpartisan group that tracks election problems. ``It's been a steady drumbeat, but nothing that rises to the level of `This could compromise the results.'''

Nevertheless, some of the mishaps raised frustration levels, and not just in Colorado.

In Cleveland, where some voters in 2004 waited in 14-hour lines, problems with ballot reading machines caused big delays. For the first time, all 88 counties used electronic voting, either touch screens or paper ballots that are electronically scanned.

James Marquart said he walked out without voting after poll workers said his name wasn't on the rolls, even though he was holding a postcard from the elections board that told him which precinct to vote in.

``They did offer me a provisional ballot, but I have absolutely no faith in provisional ballots,'' he said. Such ballots are only counted if election officials can document the voter's registration.