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Long line snaps in spat over vote (SC)
GoUpstate.com. October 31, 2008. By Jason Spencer

This election is getting ugly sooner rather than later.

A fracas at the Spartanburg County Office of Registrations and Elections on Thursday left one woman in tears, angered voters and activists on the left and the right, and it piqued the interest of the U.S. Department of Justice.

As long lines and wait times have become bigger issues in the run-up to Tuesday's election, both political parties have stationed poll watchers at the county's election office. And as poll workers, volunteers, election officials and voters continue to put in long hours, tension is running high.

There are multiple accounts of what happened Thursday.

What's clear is that Spartanburg County Republican Party Chairman Rick Beltram, taking the role of a poll watcher, challenged the vote of 74-year-old Fannie Rogers because he didn't believe her signature matched what was on her credentials. This upset the actual poll worker the person who checks in a voter and soon Ruby Rice, president of the Spartanburg NAACP branch, was involved.

'I don't have real good handwriting anyway, and this man (Beltram) said it didn't match the writing on my card,' Rogers said. 'It really upset me. Ruby came over and asked him if he was harassing me. He said no. I said yes.'

The poll worker left in tears, Beltram left, saying attorneys for Republican candidates would be at the Election Office today, and Rice left to call the state Election Commission and complain.

'Beltram is bad about this, and he needs to be held accountable,' Rice said. 'All these people want to do is cast their vote, and you've got people standing in the way saying they have no right.'

By late Thursday, word of the dispute had reached Washington, D.C.

'We're aware of and monitoring the situation in Spartanburg,' said Scot Montrey, spokesman for the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division.

Both Republican and Democratic insiders said Thursday they didn't want to blow the situation out of proportion, as it might discourage voters from casting absentee ballots. The wait time was close to four hours Thursday.

Beltram alleges that Democratic state Sen. Glenn Reese's campaign provided doughnuts and bottled water to voters waiting in line earlier this week, which turned out not to be true. Thursday, he said Democrats were handing out buttons and brochures inside the election office.

Beltram painted himself as the victim in the situation, saying once he questioned the validity of Rogers' signature, 'all the black ladies ganged up on me.'

'They targeted me. Soon as I walked in, it was clear,' Beltram said. 'As soon as I saw Michael Reese, I knew right away what was going on. But I didn't talk to a voter. I talked to a poll worker, and she's the one who wanted to bark back.'

Reese, son of the state senator, said he didn't get to the election office until Beltram was already there. He claims Beltram did, in fact, talk to voters.

But several Republicans vouched for Beltram, saying he was just doing his job and was taken to task for it.

'I'm not a big fan of Rick, but it was Rick getting jumped on this time,' said Nicole Cobb, who is helping with several Republican candidates' campaigns. 'This time, Rick is innocent. But Ruby made a really big deal about this. And there was no cause for it.'

County election director Henry Laye said Beltram did not talk to any voters and that he had the legal right to issue challenges.

'Some people in line get excited when they see that,' Laye said. 'They think it's harassment, but it isn't.'

Laye pulled Beltram aside, and the two had a private conversation, after which the poll worker burst into tears.

'We're all tired,' Laye said.

Republican and Democratic poll watchers were then asked to step back to the point, Beltram said, where they couldn't see or hear enough to be effective.

Politics aside, some people said they were frustrated just because the incident caused people to wait even longer. Poll watchers who have the right to challenge votes they feel are questionable are allowed as long as they don't interrupt or impede the voting process.

Beltram said he didn't plan to go down to the election office again, but he had advised several campaigns that they need to send lawyers there. When he was asked which campaigns, Beltram said primarily Mike Gardner. Gardner is challenging Glenn Reese in the state Senate race.

Liz Patterson, former chairwoman of the county Democratic Party, blamed Thursday's incident on 'overeagerness of poll watchers not sure what the rules are. The poll watchers, or at least Mr. Beltram, were intimidating, rather than doing what it says a poll watcher should do. The rules are there for voter protection, not voter intimidation.'

Staff writer Robert W. Dalton contributed to this report. Read Spencer's blog at www.goupstate.com/crazyworld.


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