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Dirty tricks litter path to election
Elections supervisors are warning voters: Be alert for attempts at fraud and intimidation.
St. Petersburg Times. October 29, 2004

When Dolores Cuellar of Orlando opened her door and saw a woman with a clipboard, she didn't hesitate to say which candidate she preferred.

"Not Bush," said Cuellar, 42. "The other one."

The woman told Cuellar she didn't need to bother going to the polls. She would mark Cuellar's vote on a piece of paper right there. And while she was at it, she also would record a vote for Cuellar's 18-year-old daughter.

Cuellar, who had never voted before, said she mistakenly thought she had just voted.

"You never know what can be true or what can't be true," said her daughter, Julie Herrera, who later grew suspicious and called county elections officials.

Across Florida, elections officials say voters are being approached by individuals misrepresenting themselves and offering misleading or inaccurate information about voting.

Voters cannot vote at home and do not have to answer personal questions before casting a ballot, election officials say. Election officials won't show up unannounced at private homes, either.

Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson said he has heard about a group asking voters at the County Center if they have ever been arrested, have outstanding parking tickets or any debt.

People holding clipboards stood outside the County Center last week, offering to direct voters to the 16th-floor election office. They said they were from a voter registration office.

Real election officials would never ask questions about voters' debts, Johnson said.

Other voters say people are coming to their homes, asking to take absentee ballots. Some say they work for the elections office.

"We don't want anyone to think that it is the supervisor of elections that is coming around," said Lori Hudson, a spokeswoman for the Pinellas elections office.

Pinellas Supervisor of Elections Deborah Clark also said voters should not give out personal information such as Social Security numbers to callers. Officials won't phone for that information.

Both major political parties are legitimately attempting to collect absentee ballots in the Tampa Bay area.

"It is perfectly consistent with the law," said Matt Miller, a spokesman for the Kerry-Edwards campaign in Florida. He said Kerry-Edwards workers will identify themselves and make sure absentee ballots are delivered to elections offices.

Even so, some voters say they have grown uneasy with people who come to their doors without identification or name tags. Last Saturday, two men came to Brian Reale's door in St. Petersburg to ask for his absentee ballot.

He said they told him: "It's better if we take it."

Reale, 68, said he told them to come back Monday, but they never returned.

Rachel Bernstein of St. Petersburg said a man came to the home of her 80-year-old grandmother last Thursday and told her he was there for her absentee ballot.

She declined to turn it over. A few days later, another group asked for her ballot, Bernstein said.

Her grandmother later mailed the absentee ballot - but not from her own mailbox.

"She was worried someone would come to her mailbox and take it out in the middle of the night," Bernstein said.

Earlier this year, activist groups collected hundreds of voter registration forms - and then never turned them in.

Clark, the Pinellas elections chief, said her office received reports of people setting up voter registration tables at East Lake Community Library during the first week of early voting. She said the action is likely illegal; voter registration ended on Oct. 4.

In Pasco County, dozens of people received calls from someone claiming to be from the elections office. They were told their absentee ballots had not arrived.

Pasco Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning said his office received about 60 calls from voters seeking to verify the calls.

"We don't have a clue who it was," Browning said. "It angers me. It's misleading."

Melba Hamilton, Browning's chief deputy, said the office had received all of the callers' absentee ballots.

"It is creating some fear in the public that there are some more issues in Florida with the ballots not counting," Hamilton said. "I don't know if that's their motive, but it is certainly a byproduct."

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