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Broken vote-counting machines, MoveOn draw complaints in Iowa
The left-leaning group denies assertions that its members were 'electioneering' in Iowa and other states.
By Lynn Campbell for the Des Moines Register. 03 November 2004.

Malfunctioning ballot-counting machines and uncounted provisional and absentee ballots left Iowa's election results in doubt early this morning.

The Iowa secretary of state's office reported at 1:30 a.m. that four counties - Lee, Montgomery, Greene and Harrison - had not yet finished counting votes. Two of those counties, Lee and Montgomery, were still in the process of counting thousands of absentee ballots.

Adding to the confusion were 4,200 supplemental ballots issued by Lee County in late September because of misprinted ballots that accidentally omitted a judge's name. Many of those won't be tallied until Monday.

"Attorneys from the Republican Party are going to come through our doors," said Lee County Auditor Anne Pedersen. "From what I'm told, Bush and Kerry's so close in Iowa. Apparently, this is where they think they've got room to challenge."

The other two counties, Greene and Harrison, reported malfunctions in their ballot-counting machines that delayed counting. Harrison County got its machine fixed shortly after midnight and resumed counting.

Earlier in the day, an automatic absentee ballot-counting machine in Scott County made by Election Systems & Software of Omaha also broke down. Election officials there resorted to backup machines, which required workers to manually feed in about 23,000 ballots one by one.

Yet another unknown factor is the provisional or "challenged" ballots cast across the state by voters whose qualifications were challenged. Those votes will be counted Thursday by special precinct boards.

"That's the wild card of this election," said Spencer Overton, who teaches election law at George Washington University. "The big question here is, how many provisional ballots will count?"

Problems reported Tuesday included:

Electioneering? Republicans in Iowa joined those in Minnesota, New Hampshire, Colorado and Michigan in complaining Tuesday that a left-leaning group, MoveOn, was illegally campaigning too close to polling sites.

"This is part of the Democrats' national plan to disrupt the election," said Gentry Collins, deputy chairman of the Republican Party of Iowa.

But Eli Pariser , executive director of MoveOn PAC, the grass-roots group backing Democrat John Kerry for president, said there was no evidence of his group's 70,000 volunteers doing anything wrong. "This is a smear campaign," he said. "These charges are simply fraudulent. We play by the rules."

In Iowa, campaigning within 300 feet of the entrance of a polling place is illegal. Those caught "electioneering" can be charged with a serious misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $1,500.

Complaints came from Polk, Story, Linn, Johnson and Pottawattamie counties. Ames police and the Polk County attorney's office were among those called to help move people away from polling sites. No arrests were reported.

Absentee ballots: Johnson County Republicans challenged the legality of several hundred absentee ballots, forcing them into a pile of challenged votes that will be sorted out later. Challenges included different spellings of a person's name.

"There's no one particular group that is being targeted that we can tell, other than the fact that they're all Democrats," said Sarah Swisher, the county's Democratic Party chairwoman.

Some people were forced to vote by provisional ballot after they threw their absentee ballots away. "A lot of people requested ballots back in July, then they didn't realize what they were and threw them away," said Jasper County Auditor Ken Slothauber.

Identity theft? Deanna Trevillyan , 40, of West Des Moines went to vote at Stilwell Junior High School, only to find she was not on the list of registered voters. She said she's lived and voted in the same precinct for at least 14 years. Election officials told her that her Social Security number and birthday were listed as someone else's in Ankeny. Trevillyan cast a provisional ballot.

Motor voter: Election officials could not confirm that Tina Buffington of Des Moines had registered to vote when renewing her driver's license in May. Such problems, which began when Iowa started motor voter in 1996, did not appear to be widespread this year, said Phyllis Peters, spokeswoman for the secretary of state's office. She said in most cases, problems can be sorted out when election officials audit individual drivers' computer records.

Wrong precinct: Derek Schoppa, 27, said he didn't get his voter registration card in the mail, so he drove to three polling places in Urbandale before finding the right one, St. Pius X Parish Center.

Overvoting: Some Polk County residents voted for too many candidates, causing machines to reject their ballots. "They're just making mistakes," said Michael Mauro, the county auditor.

Address changes: A Republican poll watcher in Linn County challenged voters who reported new addresses when they cast their ballots, despite state law allowing the change if voters can prove residence in the precinct.

Iowa's voting problems paled in comparison with reports across the country. In Arkansas, some poll workers reportedly were asking only black voters for identification; tires were slashed on 20 Republican get-out-the-vote vans in Milwaukee; and New Mexico voters were allegedly misled to think they were at the wrong polling place.

"The corruption that you find in some states doesn't seem to be finding its way to Iowa," said Ben Stone, executive director of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union.

Iowa was one of 25 states visited Tuesday by teams from the U.S. Department of Justice's civil rights division. "I told them they looked like the Maytag repairmen," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Dopf. "They were waiting for the call that never came."

Register staff writers Jeff Eckhoff, Bert Dalmer, Laurie Mansfield, J. Janeczko Jacobs and Clark Kauffman contributed to this report.

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