The Justice Department is ill prepared to handle a large influx of complaints about voting rights violations in the Nov. 2 presidential election, according to a report released yesterday by the Government Accountability Office.
Campaign experts predict that the department's voting rights section will be flooded with calls and complaints about poll access and other irregularities in the face of a close race between President Bush and Democrat John F. Kerry and uncertainty over the effects of changes in election law and procedures. Some fear a repeat of the 2000 deadlock over the presidential election results in Florida.
The Justice Department "lacks a clear plan" to reliably document and track allegations in a manner that could allow monitors to swiftly pick up patterns of abuse and take corrective steps, according to the GAO, Congress's nonpartisan investigative arm.
"The reason it's so important to collect this information is to look for patterns in a particular county or in a particular polling place," said William O. Jenkins Jr., who prepared the report at the request of three Democratic lawmakers. "For instance, is it only Democrats or Republicans that seem to be having this problem? Were different voters told different things?"
The Justice Department said it has put in place better reporting and tracking mechanisms since the GAO report draft was completed in August and has devoted significant resources to ensuring that election reform laws passed since 2000 are followed.
"Additionally, as the GAO report points out, the Civil Rights Division, at the direction of the Assistant Attorney General, has worked with civil rights leaders, state and local election officials, and U.S. Attorneys' Offices prior to election day to help ensure that citizens' voting rights are protected," spokesman Eric Holland said in a prepared statement.
The report comes amid criticism by Democrats that the Justice Department is too focused on pursuing allegations of voter fraud and trumpeting terrorism concerns that could scare people away from the polls, at the expense of its mission to safeguard the right to vote.
The Justice Department said it plans to deploy 1,700 civil rights monitors to key states on Election Day. But with more than 200,000 polling places nationwide, the department will be able to cover only a fraction of the facilities.
In 2000, the report found, the department relied on contractors to handle a record number of call-in complaints. The contractors' logs were imprecise, the report found, and did not track complaints at all in four states: Arkansas, Kansas, Montana and North Dakota.
Democrats who requested the report blasted the department.
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) said it was "inexcusable" that the "Justice Department does not have the systems in place that are necessary to respond to reports of voters being turned away from the polls on Election Day."
New voting rules cited in the report as potentially problematic vary from state to state and continue to change.
In Ohio, for instance, a federal court yesterday reversed a ruling by the secretary of state and said that "provisional ballots" must be counted regardless of whether they were cast in the correct precinct.
Provisional ballots must for the first time be given to people nationwide who show up at the polls and do not find their names on the rolls of registered voters. They will be counted if it can be determined after Election Day that the voter was in fact eligible. Other federal courts have ruled differently, and legal battles are ongoing in battleground states including Florida.
Meanwhile, new problems crop up daily. In Wisconsin, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a co-chair of Kerry's state campaign, and Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker, a co-chair of Bush's state campaign, are wrangling over the number of ballots that election officials should make available in the city. Barrett wants more, saying the city could run out; Walker has said the request is excessive and poses potential problems of ballot security.
Staff writer Dan Eggen contributed to this report.