Voters may feel eyes on them
Expect long lines, careful observation
RICHARD RUBIN AND ANN DOSS HELMS Charlotte Observer 27 October 2004
Long ballots, new rules, new machines, new voters, party observers and lawyers galore will make Tuesday one of the most closely watched elections in American history.
The super-tight 2000 election increased scrutiny of the sometimes-rickety mechanics of democracy. All the attention and a heavy turnout next week could mean unusually long lines.
Both major parties in the Carolinas plan to have observers at polling places, making sure legal voters are not excluded and bogus voters don't sneak in. Some may challenge voters' eligibility, while others will be trying to block challenges.
The S.C. Republican Party hopes to have volunteers in most precincts statewide and at least one lawyer in each county, said executive director Luke Byars.
"The size and scope of the effort is much more dramatic this time around," Byars said. "We learned our lessons in 2000, that you've got to be prepared."
In Mecklenburg County, Democrats will post workers inside at least 75 of 190 precincts, as opposed to the hit-and-miss approach from previous years, said party chairman Michael D. Evans. The party will concentrate on Democratic-heavy precincts.
N.C. elections director Gary Bartlett said he expects plenty of scrutiny in areas with concentrations of college students, racial minorities and nonnative English speakers.
"Our election laws are based on honesty, they're based on self-policing and certainly, yes, the more sunshine, the better it is," he said. "On the flip side, there are those who think they know election law who will go a little further than what is needed. And they will cause delay and they will cause confusion."
The complaints have already started.
Last week, Cleveland County Democrats stopped passing out a sample ballot that did not show who paid for it. In Mecklenburg, after Democrats objected, Republican county commissioners backed off an attempt to block Sunday voting.
And on Tuesday, the state Republican Party filed a complaint with Mecklenburg County elections officials, alleging that early-voting poll workers were instructing voters how to use machines by showing them how to cast a straight Democratic ticket.
"It appears that election officials in Mecklenburg County have put their partisan desires ahead of their civic obligations," state GOP chair Ferrell Blount said in a statement.
Mecklenburg elections director Michael Dickerson said he was examining the charge.
"We have already contacted the site coordinators to remind them to not do anything like that," he said.
Several factors could lead to longer lines Tuesday:
• This year's heightened scrutiny will lead to increased emphasis on the casting and counting of provisional ballots. If precinct workers cannot find a voter's name in the poll book, for example, they will still let the person vote but not on the regular machines.
Provisional ballots are counted after elections officials determine the voter's eligibility.
• Fifteen S.C. counties will have new machines; the state has sponsored a voter-education campaign.
• Some voters will face long ballots that could stretch the patience of those behind them in line. Mecklenburg voters, for instance, have a total of 64 items, up from 57 in 2000 and 60 in 1996. Because ballots vary by precinct, no one voter will have that many decisions.
• In addition, many expect very high turnout, which could slow down Election Day. Already, both states have broken records for early or absentee voting.
Volunteers with the national Election Protection Coalition will be outside 40 to 80 Mecklenburg precincts, said Geneal Gregory of Charlotte, a longtime NAACP activist and co-chair of the N.C. monitoring effort.
They are watching precincts with high numbers of minority voters, as well as elderly voters and immigrants, Gregory said.
"We'll be more or less troubleshooters," she said.
Bill Peaslee, chief of staff for the N.C. Republican Party, said GOP pollwatchers will be looking for problems, such as people who help several different "mothers" cast ballots and caregivers who aggressively aid the disabled and the elderly.
He said the Democratic accusations of Republican voter suppression attempts are overblown, as are charges that Democrats engage in systematic fraud.
But, just to check, there will be plenty of people from all sides watching Tuesday's vote.
And, if you think Election Day could be difficult, just remember: lawyers from both parties are boning up on recount law.