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Election faces new scrutiny  
Challenges to voter qualifications expected  

Concord Monitor staff

October 31. 2004 11:41AM

The presidential contest is nail-bitingly close in New Hampshire. And with a record turnout expected, every vote matters.

As New Hampshire braces for a historically crowded Election Day, the attorney general's office has warned election officials that they will face "an unprecedented level of scrutiny" on Tuesday.

Democratic and Republican lawyers will fan out to monitor voting precincts across the state. They will focus especially on Vermont border towns, college towns and the most populous cities and towns, according to the attorney general's office, which has told election moderators to expect a high number of challenges to individual voters'qualifications.

Election officials have taken extraordinary precautions to prevent long lines at the polls and to ensure all eligible voters get to vote. State investigators will be stationed in each of the 10 counties to provide speedy assistance to any moderator who requests it. Many communities have hired extra election workers, built additional voting booths and photocopied extra ballots in case they run out.

And though the courts are closed on Tuesday, Superior Court Chief Justice Robert Lynn will have clerks on call at the Grafton County and Hillsborough North superior courts in case one of the parties files an emergency lawsuit.

Such preparations are under way nationwide, as polls continue to show the presidential race nail-bitingly close. Memories of the 2000 Florida debacle remain fresh in the minds of voters from both parties. And in New Hampshire, Democrats are still furious about a 2002 phone-jamming scandal in which the director of the state Republican Party conspired to tie up Democratic and union office phones on Election Day.
Few expect New Hampshire to become the next Florida - or even another Ohio, where several election-related lawsuits are already under way. For one thing, all New Hampshire communities that don't count ballots by hand use optical scanning machines. They not are not only chad-free, but, unlike the computerized voting machines used in some states, they also leave a paper trail.

For another, New Hampshire is one of five states where voters can register on Election Day. So there is no need for provisional ballots, which let registered voters whose names don't appear on the rolls vote. Those ballots are already the subject of legal disputes in other states.

New Hampshire's election law does provide ample opportunity to anyone who is determined to commit fraud, however. Anyone who can't provide proof of residence can sign an affidavit promising that he or she lives here. Voters who sign the affidavit can vote, and their ballots are placed in the ballot box with all the others - so they can't be argued about later in the event of a recount. While investigators could theoretically prosecute people who vote here illegally after the election, there is little anyone can do - short of presenting proof of fraud - to stop their votes from being counted.

"What I'm worried about is, if somebody's from Massachusetts and going to school in New Hampshire and they've got their absentee ballot and voted down there, then they show up in New Hampshire and walk in and say, 'I'm a resident of New Hampshire,'" said Tom Rath, the Republican National Committeeman. "We do not have a system in place currently that catches that. That's a very real problem."

Bracing for challenges

New Hampshire election law allows designees from each state party, or a qualified voter in the precinct, to challenge any voter's qualifications.

Until recently, that section of the law was rarely put to use. But in a 23-page letter the attorney general's office sent to moderators last week, Assistant Attorney General Bud Fitch wrote that he had been advised that "there may be an unusually high number of challenges to voters at some polling places."

Fitch advised moderators that, in order to lodge a legitimate complaint, the challenger must have specific information as to why the voter is ineligible for one of three reasons: The voter is not 18, not a U.S. citizen or not domiciled in New Hampshire.

Any challenged voter can fill out an affidavit swearing that he or she is in fact qualified, and he or she is then allowed to vote. The voter's ballot isn't set aside, so it can't be contested later.

Democrats contend that one reason they need lawyers to monitor elections is because Republicans want to suppress turnout.

"What we have heard is that Republicans plan on challenging college students from voting," said Judy Reardon, a spokeswoman for the Kerry-Edwards campaign. "What that will achieve is not blocking the student vote but delaying the voting and creating waits and long lines."

In Hanover in 2002, a member of the Coalition of New Hampshire Taxpayers, a conservative group, challenged 400 to 600 same-day registrants in Hanover, where many Dartmouth College students vote. As each challenged voter filled out an affidavit, the lines of people waiting to vote stretched for hours. At least a couple of voters turned around and left without voting, according to a report in the Valley News of Lebanon.

The attorney general's office has tried to prevent this from occurring again by instructing moderators that such "global" challenges won't be allowed. Challengers must have specific reasons for questioning the qualifications of each voter they challenge.

Fitch has also advised moderators that no one should have to wait longer than 10 to 15 minutes to vote. He has encouraged communities to hire extra election workers, and he set up an election hotline - (866) 868-3703 - for reporting long waits. The hotline will be staffed from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Election Day.

Republicans, meanwhile, say they have no intention of issuing global challenges.

"Our goal is to make sure the process goes smoothly - everyone who can vote and is able to vote should vote," said Jim Merrill, a Manchester lawyer who is heading the Republican volunteer lawyer program. "We are not going to globally challenge students attempting to vote. There are going to be no frivolous challenges or attempts to disenfranchise anybody."

For their part, Republicans contend that the Democrats are looking for excuses to go to court.

"If we have someone in the polling place who makes a challenge that is within the guidelines, I suspect the Democratic plan is to challenge our challengers because their theme here is to say we're intimidating and we're suppressing," Merrill said.

He said Democrats have indicated that they are determined to go to court on Election Day. He said Paul Twomey, a volunteer lawyer for the Democrats, told Merrill's Republican colleague, Ovide Lamontagne, in a recent conference call with Judge Lynn that there was a 90 percent chance the Democrats would file a lawsuit on Election Day.

"It was disheartening and disappointing to me they're planning on suing almost no matter what," Merrill said said.

Twomey said he said no such thing.

"I said that if they do illegal things like jamming the phones and committing felonies like they did the last time, there's a 100 percent chance we'll go to court," he said.

Jayne Millerick, the chairwoman of the Republican State Committee, said such concerns were unfounded.

"What happened was absolutely despicable, and we have worked hard over the last two years to put controls in place to make sure nothing like that every happens again,"she said.

Both parties have held special trainings for volunteer lawyers who will be at the polling places.

Bob Larsen, who is heading the Democratic volunteer lawyer program, said his colleagues would be unobtrusive and "respectful of the process."

"They are there to observe and to monitor and to be helpful, quite frankly, to election officials," he said.

Intimidating atmosphere

College students continue to be a bone of contention. In New London last week, a handful of Colby-Sawyer students reported feeling harassed or intimidated by local election officials, according to a college official. (The town clerk, Linda Purdy, said her office had tried to be welcoming.)

Last Tuesday, Secretary of State Bill Gardner and Fitch held a press conference at the request of the Sierra Club's national director, Carl Pope, to explain the rules.

Pope said he called the press conference after touring New Hampshire campuses and hearing complaints from students.

"A number of people said they felt there were people trying to discourage them from exercising their right to vote, that the atmosphere was intimidating," he said.

The law is clear that students from out-of-state may choose to vote either in New Hampshire or in their home state. There is no requirement that they have a New Hampshire driver's license, or register their cars here, in order to do so.

The attorney general's office, however, advises students who choose to vote here to apply for a New Hampshire driver's license within 60 days. The motor vehicle law requires all new residents to get their license and registration within that time frame.

But the law is murky. There are no restrictions on how long students must consider themselves New Hampshire "domiciliaries"before or after voting here. The motor vehicle law also provides an exception for people living in New Hampshire who are residents of any other state "for any other purpose."

And even if students receive police citations for failing to register their cars here, that doesn't affect their right to vote.

After a meeting Fitch held in New London last Thursday to answer questions from Colby-Sawyer students and town officials, two students came to very different conclusions about how they should vote.

James Kovach, a junior, holds a Connecticut driver's license and car registration. He missed that state's deadline for absentee voting, so he had considered voting in New Hampshire. After the meeting with Fitch, though, he was concerned -he didn't want to change his truck's registration, and he worried that as a member of the college's off-roading club, he might get ticketed by the police for failing to do so.

"I have to sit down and think about it," he said. "From what I understand, it's a complicated issue."

Ben Holley, a leader of the Kerry-Edwards group on campus, said he planned to vote here but wouldn't change his license and registration from Massachusetts, where he'll return after graduation. He said that as a senior, he felt connected to New Hampshire and felt he had the right to vote here even if he didn't change his license and registration.

Democrats have distributed flyers around college campuses advising student voters of their rights. They have also set up a special Web site, studentscanvote.com, which advises students that it's not necessary to register their car here if they vote here.

Millerick strongly objected to that claim.

"That is blatantly telling students to break the law and it runs contrary to the instructions the secretary of state is giving to college students," she said.

In the past, students and campaigns have also complained that election officials have tried to intimidate students from out-of-state by telling them they could lose their financial aid by voting here. A very few state and local scholarships could be jeopardized by an out-of-state student's decision to vote here.

But the vast majority of scholarships and loans, such as Pell grants, are unaffected.

The secretary of state's office advises students to check with their financial aid officer if they're concerned.

Election officials in college towns certainly aren't counting on students being deterred by the complex rules or anything else.

In Hanover, Moderator Willy Black will have an official from the Dartmouth College housing department sitting next to her with a computerized database of students who live on campus. She will have twice the usual number of poll workers on duty, she will split the checklist into 10 sections of the alphabet instead of five and she has mapped out a detailed floor plan of the polling place to make sure there are no traffic jams.

The Keene city clerk, Patricia Little, said her moderators were also gearing up to make the day go smoothly. She is expecting massive turnout - 1,000 of the city's 13,932 voters registered in the last two weeks before registration closed on Oct. 23. Little has ordered more voting screens, made new signs and even ordered new guardrails.

"We've been in the carpentry shop all week," she said.

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