Tempers Flare as Contests Heat Up

By Matthew Mosk and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Tempers flared at several Texas voting precincts, and the campaigns of Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) traded accusations of rule-breaking yesterday during the hours leading up to evening caucuses where one-third of the state's delegates were to be awarded.

In Ohio, elections officials held some polls open for an additional 90 minutes because of winter weather and ballot shortages. The extended voting caused a delay of several hours before the state could ultimately be called for Clinton, largely because of late voting in the Cleveland area, an expected Obama stronghold.

In Texas, the two-step process of a primary vote during the day, followed by an evening caucus, had participants waiting under the stars as voting crowds swamped the event. Their turnout delayed the caucus events at numerous precincts across the state. In Laredo, a volunteer organizer brought a microphone and a portable speaker from home to try to calm the crowd. But he was drowned out by chants of "We want to vote!" and "We're getting cheated!"

Irregularities in Texas had the campaigns leveling a series of charges against each other: that operatives were trying to gain an upper hand by loading up caucus sheets with signatures before the evening events started, that biased precinct chairs were locking the caucus venues before rival supporters could enter, and that campaign supporters had stolen the packet of materials that granted them control of the caucus site.

Officials from the Texas Democratic Party issued memos urging the campaigns to play fair. But party officials grew increasingly frustrated with the feuding as the day wore on. "These are two professional campaigns with professional organizations, and we expect both to abide by the rules," said Hector Nieto, a party spokesman.

The Clinton campaign took a more aggressive posture, holding a conference call with reporters to allege what Texas campaign manager Ace Smith called a "tremendously disturbing pattern" of behavior by Obama supporters. "What's happening tonight is just truly an outrage," Smith said.

In an aggressive bit of pushback, Bob Bauer, general counsel to the Obama campaign, jumped the conference call to dispute the allegations and demand the Clinton campaign "stop attacking the caucus process."

"I'm curious to know how is this any different than the series of complaints you've registered against every caucus that you lose?" Bauer asked. He called the Clinton campaign's allegations "meritless."

Many Texas Democrats knew this problem was coming.

With more than 8,000 precincts and not enough volunteers to serve as captains for the caucus events, the Texas Democratic Party decided that the first person in the door at 7:15 p.m. who picks up the packet of materials from the election judge at the precinct site becomes chair.

"If you have a precinct that doesn't have a chair, the first person there picks it up and gets it. The rules are designed to create a race to the packet," said State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, a Clinton supporter who represents El Paso.

Clinton campaign lawyers said they grew more concerned after reports of irregularities from supporters. Carolyn Arambula, an advocate for injured workers in San Antonio and a Clinton supporter, said she called the campaign after spotting an Obama operative collecting signatures on a caucus sign-in sheet early in the day. The sheets were supposed to be filled out at the caucus event as proof of each candidate's support.

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