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Will US voters face poll chaos?

By Laura Smith-Spark
BBC News

In 2000 it was the problem of hanging chads, recounts and court decisions in Florida.

In 2004, some voters endured an eight-hour wait to vote in Ohio.

Four years on, a study by the Pew Research Center has warned of a possible "perfect storm" creating chaos at the polls - fuelled by record numbers of voters, new voters, and shortage of polling station staff.

Voters wait to cast absentee ballots in Ohio, 1 Oct 2008
Ohio is already at the centre of disputes over voter registration

Another report on 10 swing states, by The Century Foundation and Common Cause, found that "significant problems in the basic functions of American election administration system persist, and in a few cases have worsened".

Unsurprisingly, both the Democratic and Republican Parties have been signing up lawyers in readiness for rancorous disputes over voter identity, voting machine malfunctions and close counts.

There have already been several legal challenges over the registration of voters and casting of absentee ballots.

In one, the Ohio Republican Party demanded access to lists of newly registered voters whose details did not match driver's licence or social security records - a move which could have enabled activists to challenge the right to vote of up to 200,000 people.

Emotions have run high and unfortunately that has led to some rather disturbing messages
Jennifer Brunner
Ohio Secretary of State

The US Supreme Court ruled against the party and in favour of Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, a Democrat, who argued that the majority of cases stemmed from clerical errors, not fraud.

In an indication of how tense the state is, Ms Brunner's office has since been subjected to a barrage of threatening e-mails and telephone calls, the senders apparently encouraged by right-wing radio shows.

"Emotions have run high and unfortunately that has led to some rather disturbing messages," Ms Brunner told the BBC News website.

The state also had to close down its website briefly after it was found to have been breached by hackers.

High numbers

On election day, Ms Brunner predicts Ohio's biggest challenge will be the sheer number of people at the polls, with some 80% of registered voters expected to turn out, compared with 70% in 2004.

POTENTIAL POLL PROBLEMS
Higher than usual number of voters leads to long queues
First-time voters are confused by the process, adding to delays
Voters are challenged over their registration or identity at the polls
Polling stations experience problems with voting machines
High turn-out leads to shortage of ballot papers
People who have been served a foreclosure notice denied right to vote

In preparation, the state has improved training for poll workers, set up back-up paper ballot systems in case of problems with touch-screen voting machines and sought to resolve issues over registration before polling day.

Ms Brunner does not think the chaos of 2004 will be repeated, but says the scale of the operation means "no election ever goes 100% smoothly".

"I have done everything possible to ensure that that will never happen again in Ohio," she said.

"There will be lines, because so many people will be voting, but I think we have planned ahead and devised ways to make those lines move quickly."

Absentee votes

Ohio will not be alone in seeing a flood of voters at the polls.

As of 14 October, 13 battleground states had already received 3.4m new voter registrations, compared with 1.8m in 2004, according to tracking organisation Catalist.

Many states and voter rights organisations have encouraged people to take advantage of early or absentee voting in order to reduce the risk that long queues deter voters on election day.

Early voters wait in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 20 Oct
An increase in early voters has led to long lines in Florida and elsewhere

Their efforts have worked so well that some early voters in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia have found themselves waiting for hours to cast their ballot.

Florida's Republican Governor Charlie Crist has even taken steps to extend early voting hours from eight to 12 hours a day in a bid to shorten the queues.

As many as a third of American voters are expected to have cast their ballots before election day, compared to one in five in 2004.

The push from both parties to sign up new voters has led to complaints by Republicans that left-leaning community organisations such as ACORN are registering fictional voters.

The Democrats have countered by accusing the Republicans of attempting to suppress legitimate votes and disenfranchise minorities.

Of particular concern to voter rights groups are:

  • New voter identification laws in Indiana, Arizona, Florida and elsewhere, where critics say the requirement to produce photo ID discriminates against poor, elderly and minority voters
  • Problems for voters whose homes are in the process of being repossessed, or foreclosed, meaning their address may no longer match their registration details and they can only cast a provisional ballot
  • Efforts by some state parties to seek foreclosure lists as a means to disqualify people from voting - even though many remain in their homes for some time after a foreclosure notice is served
  • A shortage of voting machines in some areas with large ethnic minority populations, particularly in Virginia, where a civil rights group is suing on the grounds black voters may be disadvantaged by long lines
  • Challenges over registration and identity at the polls, which may slow down long lines further and could result in voters feeling intimidated

'Extremely confusing'

Both parties will station teams at polling stations across the country in order to spot potential problems.

I don't believe the problems will be so large that the identity of the next US president will be in question
Professor Richard Hasen
Loyola Law School

Rock The Vote, a non-partisan group which encourages voter registration, particularly among young people, will also have staff in some polling stations and has set up a free number for voters to call if they suffer problems.

It has joined forces with other voter rights groups to set up a national pool of election experts and lawyers that can be consulted about issues on the day.

Efforts are focused on key states - Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Virginia, Colorado and New Mexico among them - where tensions could be highest and lines at polling places longest.

Already, the group has stepped in to help Virginia Tech students who were wrongly told by election officials that if they registered to vote in Virginia, away from their parental home, they risked losing scholarships or healthcare coverage.

But most young voters know their rights and are enthusiastic, suggesting turnout nationwide will be high, Ms Young said.

"At the last election, we helped register over 1.4m people. This year we've helped register over 2.5m people, so it's a huge difference right there," she said.

'Not in doubt'

Most observers do not foresee a repeat of voting machine problems on the scale seen in 2000 in Florida, when a Supreme Court ruling on its contested vote count - complicated by so-called hanging, dimpled and pregnant chads on paper ballots - eventually gave George W Bush the presidency.

Bag containing fallen chads, Florida, 2000
Florida was the scene of contentious recounts in 2000

But with many states having brought in new voting systems since then, the system is "still in flux", the Pew study says. And doubts linger over the reliability of some electronic machines.

However, the good news according to Professor Richard Hasen, an election law expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, is that whatever problems arise in 2008, he does not expect the result to be thrown into doubt.

"There's a good chance that somewhere in the US there will be broken-down machines, or polling place problems where the lines are too long or there are problems with the registration lists, but I don't believe the problems will be so large that the identity of the next US president will be in question," he told the BBC.

"For that to happen, the election would have to be extremely close in a battleground state, not in terms of percentages but in actual numbers."


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