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Some Fear Ohio Will Be Florida of 2004

By Paul Farhi and Jo Becker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, October 26, 2004; Page A01

COLUMBUS, Ohio, Oct. 25 -- Democrats and Republicans here traded accusations of voter fraud, obstruction and intimidation Monday as officials grappled with what is becoming a confused -- and potentially chaotic -- presidential election in this critical battleground state.

As Democrats marched through the downtown streets of the state capital with banners reading "Not This Time!" and chanting "Count every vote," Republicans continued to challenge the eligibility of thousands of newly registered voters. This presented state election officials with the prospect of holding thousands of hearings over the next week to determine who can cast a ballot on Nov. 2.

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The continuing legal and bureaucratic uncertainties have heightened fears that Ohio could be on the verge of becoming the next Florida, which could not determine a winner for 36 days after the 2000 election. Polls here show President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in a statistical dead heat in a state that each needs to win.

"A storm is brewing in Ohio," Columbus Mayor Michael Coleman (D) said Monday. "The day after Election Day, we've got to make sure the sun is shining. By that, I mean each and every vote has to be counted."

Among the looming concerns:

• Republicans have already filed 35,000 challenges to voters' eligibility and are preparing to send recruits into 8,000 polling places next Tuesday to challenge other voters they suspect are not eligible, particularly hundreds of thousands of the newly registered. Democrats are alarmed at the effort, saying it could tie up voting and keep many away from the polls.

• Ohio's voter-registration rolls contain more than 120,000 duplicate names, and an untold number of ineligible voters, such as people who have moved out of the state. A review of the rolls by the Columbus Dispatch even found a murder victim and two suspected terrorists among the eligible.

• Democrats fear that polling places will be inadequately staffed and equipped to handle the crush of voters on Election Day. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) said Monday she is concerned that many new voters will not get proper notification from county election boards about where to vote. That is a critical issue in light of a federal appeals court ruling Saturday that voters with provisional ballots -- backup ballots for voters whose names do not appear on the rolls -- must cast them in their own precinct for the votes to count.

In an interview, J. Kenneth Blackwell, Ohio's secretary of state, acknowledged that the state may experience "a few hiccups" in the next eight days, but he dismissed notions of widespread trouble on Nov. 2. "You manage against systemic choking," said Blackwell, whom Democrats have criticized for his dual role as co-chairman of Bush's reelection campaign in Ohio. "I don't think we'll have systemic choking. I don't anticipate the kind of confusion we saw in Florida."

But Democrats, and some election officials as well, say the most potentially disruptive action could be Republican challenges of voters' eligibility filed over the past few days. Although some of the more than 35,000 challenges have been withdrawn or rejected by county officials, about 25,000 are pending.

The Democratic Party and the Kerry-Edwards campaign sent letters Monday to Ohio's 88 county election boards asking them to dismiss the challenges, arguing that they are "unfair" and "arbitrary" and that the Ohio GOP has not provided sufficient evidence under state law that the voters challenged are ineligible.

The rules for challenging voters vary from state to state, and officials nationwide are bracing for an onslaught. In Ohio, the state GOP is drawing on a little-used 1953 law to file its pre-election challenges.

Ohio law states that a party can challenge a voter's eligibility if the challenger has a reasonable doubt that the person is a citizen, is at least 18, or is a legal resident of the state or the county where he shows up to vote. The law also states that local election boards must give voters challenged before Election Day three days' notice before holding a mandatory hearing, no later than two days before the election.

It is not clear, however, how election officials can hold so many hearings, or what they should do after them.

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