As if things weren't complicated enough, here comes the dirt.
Registered voters who have been somehow unregistered. Democrats who suddenly find they've been re-registered as Republicans. A flier announcing that Election Day has been extended through Wednesday.
Dirty tricks are a staple of campaigns, but election officials say this year's could achieve new highs in numbers and new lows in scope, especially in key battleground states such as Florida and Ohio, where special-interest groups have poured in to influence the neck-and-neck race between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry.
"In my 16 years as an election administrator, I've never seen anything like this," said Ion Sancho, supervisor of elections in Leon County, Fla. "I see it as an expression of a political culture that has evolved in the United States of win at any cost. It's not partisan, but it's just lie, cheat and steal, and ethics be damned."
The problem in Leon County: Students at Florida State and Florida A&M universities, some of whom signed petitions to legalize medical marijuana or impose stiffer penalties for child molesters, unknowingly had their party registration switched to Republican and their addresses changed.
Officials say students at the University of Florida in Alachua County have made similar complaints and that about 4,000 potential voters in all have been affected. Local papers have traced some of the problems to a group hired by the Florida Republican Party, which has denounced the shenanigans. Switching voters' party affiliations does not affect their ability to vote, but changing addresses does, because when voters shows up at their proper polling places, they will not be registered there.
The college scam has also made an appearance in Pennsylvania, along with a separate scam last week in Allegheny County, where election officials received a flurry of phone calls about fliers handed out at a Pittsburgh area mall and mailed to an unknown number of homes. The flier, distributed on bogus but official-looking stationery with a county letterhead, told voters that "due to immense voter turnout expected on Tuesday," the election had been extended. Republicans should vote Tuesday, Nov. 2, it said -- and Democrats on Wednesday. A criminal investigation has been launched.
Authorities in several states also are investigating claims, by former employees of groups paid by both the Republican Party and Democratic-leaning interest groups, that they destroyed or did not turn in new registrations by voters of the opposite party.
Clouding investigations are claims and counterclaims not only about tricks, but double dirty tricks.
In Wisconsin, a flier is circulating in Milwaukee's black neighborhoods that purports to be from the "Milwaukee Black Voters League." "If you've already voted in any election this year, you can't vote in the presidential election," the flier reads. "If you violate any of these laws, you can get ten years in prison and your children will get taken away from you."
Chris Lato, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Republican Party, called the fliers "appalling" but wondered whether Democratic interest groups might be to blame. He said circulators falsely claiming to represent the Republican Party might be trying to gin up turnout among black voters.
"First of all, the claim was false, and it seems a little obvious," he said. "We have a lot of these shadowy Democratic groups here in Wisconsin, and I wouldn't put it past 'em to do something like this to muck up the works."
Meanwhile, in Lake County, Ohio, some voters received a memo on bogus Board of Elections letterhead informing voters who registered through Democratic and NACCP drives that they could not vote. Election officials referred the matter to the sheriff.
Lawyers for the Ohio GOP, who have charged Democratic groups with registering fictitious characters such as Mary Poppins, said Friday that they condemned election fraud and misinformation campaigns of any kind. But some local Lake County Republicans have adopted the double-dirty-trick explanation, saying the Democrats are out to make the GOP look bad.
Whatever the motive, election officials say that voters are genuinely confused by the misinformation. In the Cleveland area, election officials said they received a spate of complaints after voters began receiving phone calls incorrectly informing them that their polling place had changed. In addition, unknown volunteers began showing up at voters' doors illegally offering to collect and deliver completed absentee ballots to the election office.
Jane Platten, a spokeswoman for the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, said officials have not identified who is behind the tricks. "We've never seen anything like this before, where there seems to be a concerted effort to to give voters misinformation," she said.
In South Carolina, Charleston County election officials warned voters Friday to ignore a fake letter that purports to be from the NAACP. The letter threatens voters who have outstanding parking tickets or have failed to pay child support with arrest.
"Thankfully, we got this in time to do something about it," said the Rev. Joe Darby, first vice president of the South Carolina state conference of the NAACP, who learned about the letter his organization supposedly had written when it showed up in his own mailbox. "This isn't new -- it's the South Carolina politics of ignorance. And it's not surprising, because this is one of those every-vote-counts elections. But I don't think people will be fooled."