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Courts Weigh In After Voting Difficulties Emerge at the Polls

By Amy Goldstein and Alan Cooperman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Voting glitches in at least a dozen states marred yesterday's election, including difficulties getting voting machines to work, confusion about voters' eligibility and sporadic accusations of vote fraud or intimidation.

The troubles delayed the opening of polling sites and created long lines in some precincts of nearly every region of the country. They prompted courts in eight states on the East Coast and in the Midwest to extend polling hours last evening, and caused election officials elsewhere to give out provisional ballots.

Still, no catastrophic problem had emerged by late last night to imperil the validity of any race, according to nonpartisan election experts and polling observers across the ideological spectrum.

"I don't think there was any complete meltdown of the system anywhere. Democracy survived," said Tova Wang, an elections specialist at the nonpartisan Century Foundation. "But if you look at the country overall . . . there were certainly a lot of problems."

Election specialists cautioned that even small problems could influence the outcome of especially close contests. A complete portrait of how the voting went will not become clear until today or later, when election boards evaluate what could be a record number of absentee ballots, as well as the provisional ballots.

The problems bore out warnings in recent weeks by election administration experts, who had predicted that poll workers and voters could be confused by updated voting technology and procedures.

The most serious flaws appeared to be in Denver, where residents faced two-hour lines at some polling places because of computer problems and a shortage of election judges. Colorado's Democratic Party filed a lawsuit seeking to keep polls open an extra two hours, but a Denver district court judge refused, saying it would be improper to change the rules in only one part of the state.

The chaotic atmosphere there came in the first election since Denver officials tried to make the voting system more efficient by merging hundreds of traditional precincts into 55 regional voting centers. The strategy backfired yesterday when the database of registered voters crashed and, Democrats say, hundreds of voters were turned away.

Colorado's troubles were among many instances in which problems surfaced as a result of changes that legislatures and election boards have made to their election systems. Two years after the disputed 2000 presidential election, Congress adopted the Help America Vote Act (HAVA), which devoted $3 billion to improve election procedures. The law required states to get rid of antiquated lever and punch-card machines, ensure that all voters were legitimate and count votes more accurately. This year was the deadline for states to comply with most of those requirements.

As a result, one-third of U.S. voters used new voting machines yesterday. A dozen states adopted new rules requiring voters to present various forms of identification at the polls. Every state also has been required to create a statewide database of eligible voters.

Two nationwide voter hotlines -- a coalition of civil rights groups and a project of the University of Pennsylvania -- said last night that they had received complaints about all those new systems.

Places where problems proved so tumultuous that judges agreed to extend voting hours included counties in Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina and Wisconsin.

Nearly a quarter of the precincts in Indianapolis -- where voting hours were not extended -- resorted to paper ballots for a few hours yesterday morning because poll workers were unable to hook up cables between optical scan voting machines and new touch-screen models for people with physical disabilities. Marion County Clerk Doris Anne Sadler compared the task to connecting a printer and mouse to a laptop computer.

"For younger poll workers, it's natural. For some older ones, it's a foreign concept," she said, noting that the average age of poll workers in Indianapolis is 72.

Meanwhile, several Democratic politicians around the country cited themselves as victims of what can happen as states tried to ensure that all votes are counted and overzealous poll workers asked voters to produce more identification than required by law.

In Missouri, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan (D) voted in person by absentee ballot Friday and was asked by a poll worker for a photo identification card, according to her spokeswoman, Stacie Temple. Carnahan reminded the poll worker that courts had struck down the state's new ID law and, after she insisted, ultimately was allowed to vote. But Temple said that her office received complaints yesterday that election workers were continuing to demand an ID, particularly in St. Louis, which is largely Democratic.

In Ohio, where memories of 2004 Election Day mishaps remain strong, many voters used electronic voting machines for the first time. Word spread quickly of polling stations that opened late and machines that did not function.

A federal judge ordered 16 precincts in Cuyahoga County around Cleveland to keep polls open an extra 90 minutes, at the request of Democrats. The state attorney general appealed on behalf of J. Kenneth Blackwell, Ohio's secretary of state and GOP candidate for governor.

In several states, Republicans and Democrats traded allegations of voting improprieties.

In Pennsylvania, the state Republican Party said some voters reported that they tried to cast ballots for Sen. Rick Santorum and other Republicans, but that voting machines recorded their votes for a straight Democratic ticket. In a sharply worded letter that could presage a legal challenge, the state GOP urged election officials to impound any voting machine that has been "miscalibrated" and not to fix it, so that evidence is preserved.

At the same time, Pennsylvania's Democratic Party obtained a court order for removal of signs near polling places in Philadelphia that said "Rendell/Santorum." The state Democratic Party issued a statement saying that the signs popped up overnight and were a "dirty trick to confuse or fool voters" because Gov. Edward G. Rendell (D) had endorsed Bob Casey, the Democrat who beat Santorum.

In Colorado's 4th Congressional District, Democrats said at least two registered voters with Latino names received phone calls telling them they were not registered and might be arrested if they attempted to vote.

In New Mexico, embattled Rep. Heather A. Wilson (R) said a heavily Republican precinct in her district received only 150 ballots, instead of 1,500, and turned some voters away when they ran out. In Arizona, armed vigilantes allegedly stopped and questioned Latino voters outside a Tucson polling place.

Michigan Republicans accused Democratic poll watchers of impersonating election officials by donning vests saying, "I can help you." In Florida, a few voting machines failed in Broward County and some voters in Volusia County may have been given wrong ballots, but there was nothing like the 2000 election chaos.

Since the 2000 presidential election ended in a tangle of recounts, lawsuits and, ultimately, the intervention of the U.S. Supreme Court, the political parties have made disputes over the legitimacy of the voting process a significant part of their electoral strategies. Partisan campaigns to cast doubt on elections' validity have become more sophisticated than ever this year, with Republicans saying they were working to prevent voting fraud and Democrats touting their vigilance against vote suppression.

In the weeks leading up to yesterday's balloting, both sides insisted that they would rather resolve problems at individual polling locations on the spot, rather than in court. Still, Republican and Democratic organizations -- and their respective allies -- made sure that teams of lawyers were deployed in states where races appeared close and election systems seemed ripe for problems.

Whether parties or candidates raise further challenges, election specialists said, hinges on the margins of results. "Then," said Doug Chapin, director of Electionline.org, a nonpartisan project that tracks elections reform, "it goes from being a policy problem to a political problem."

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