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Reports of intimidation mar early voting
The State. October 23, 2004. By Beth Kassab, The Orlando Sentinel.

ORLANDO, Fla. - (KRT) - Shouting matches and rowdy behavior at early-voting places throughout Florida have forced election officials to step in to keep the peace.

The tension appears aggravated by the long lines that continued in the fifth day of early voting, a sign of the amped-up enthusiasm for this year's presidential election, for which more than 50,000 voters in Brevard, Lake, Orange, Osceola, Polk, Seminole and Volusia counties had cast ballots by Friday.

Election officials across the state were unprepared for the number of people casting ballots and a loophole in the law that allows campaigners to approach voters. State law forbids campaigners from coming within 50 feet of a polling place on Election Day. But that law does not address early voting.

More than 18,721 people voted in Orange County between Monday and Friday afternoon, a sign that turnout remained strong amid reports from voters that they are being harassed or intimidated as they walk in to vote.

"They're getting so assertive that we're receiving numerous complaints from the voters themselves," said Linda Tanko, Orange County's senior deputy supervisor for voter services. "We had an argument in front of our building that we were in minutes of calling the police because they were fighting over (political) signs on private property next door."

In Volusia County, where 8,606 people cast early ballots by Friday, election officials called the Sheriff's Office earlier this week when Democratic and Republican observers outside Daytona Beach's City Island library were arguing and shouting directives at voters as they walked into the building.

"They were telling voters who to vote for, saying `This is what you better do,' " said Charlene Gagnier, outreach director of Volusia County Department of Elections. "Most voters said they didn't want any assistance making up their minds."

Now the elections office is paying for a deputy to remained stationed at the early-voting site.

"Voters either had to make a beeline around this group or head straight through it. It was a little aggressive," said Gary Davidson, a spokesman for the Volusia County Sheriff's Office.

Incidents from Miami to Jacksonville prompted the Republican Party on Friday to send Secretary of State Glenda Hood 13 affidavits from voters who said they were intimidated along with a letter pleading for more voter protection at early-voting sites.

"We had one guy that walked away and didn't cast his vote," said Mindy Tucker Fletcher, a senior Republican adviser. "It's a problem. People shouldn't be harassed as they go in to vote."

The Democrats also reported some abnormalities, including voters who called a Democratic hotline to report that they "felt intimidated" or were turned away from voting, said Christine Anderson, a spokeswoman for the national Democratic Party.

But she said she didn't put much credence in the Republicans' affidavits.

"It's honestly absurd documenting incidents that are purely anecdotal," Anderson said.

Some of the affidavits from eight counties detail large crowds of John Kerry supporters booing or becoming confrontational with people whom they identify as President Bush supporters. Others describe campaigners improperly helping voters fill out ballots.

Hood, who appeared in Orlando on Friday to cast her own early ballot, described what she called "some isolated incidents of people intimidating some of the voters or harassing them."

"Quite honestly, our supervisors were overwhelmed," Hood said of the large turnout. "In South Florida, there's been a few instances of overanxious voters."

Her office sent a memo to county supervisors Friday alerting them that if "any `observer' becomes unruly or disruptive to the voting process, you have the authority to control the situation and ask any such individual to leave the voting area, and if necessary, be removed from the voting area."

In Orange County, the tensions have placed an extra strain on the volunteers manning the booths and workers at the libraries hosting the early-voting sites.

"We're holding our breath that these folks are going to be so rowdy that they might cause the libraries to ask us to leave," Tanko said. "When it gets to the point that every day you have to find a county attorney (to find out) how they should be responding to people threatening to sue them, that doesn't create a very positive environment."

Roger Roy, Jim Buynak, Jeff Libby, Robert Perez, Laurin Sellers and Kelly Griffith of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

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