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Voting Problems Crop Up Ahead of Elections

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

The midterm elections are one week away. Congress is at stake, as well as many governorships and other offices. And one big question is how many problems there will be at the polls. Another question is whether those problems will affect who wins. Already, voting glitches have emerged, and fears that they could become more widespread have groups mobilizing to monitor the vote.

NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: Michele Lawrence Jawando has her hands full as a coordinator for Election Protection, a coalition of liberal groups trying to make sure that legitimate voters get to cast their ballots. Election Protection is deploying thousands of volunteers - including lawyers - to 16 states such as Ohio, Arizona and Missouri, where voting problems are widely anticipated.

Ms. MICHELE LAWRENCE JAWANDO (Coordinator, Election Protection): For a variety of reasons, whether it be electronic voting machines that were new in some of these jurisdictions, new voter ID laws that came into play, voting registration rules…

FESSLER: And a lot of other potential obstacles. In 2004, Election Protection received more than 200,000 phone calls, many from voters upset with long lines and malfunctioning machines. Jawando says the group has a hotline again this year, and a new computerized system to map incidents as soon as they're reported anywhere in the country.

Ms. JAWANDO: So we're able to see, okay, we're getting a spike in this area. We need to dispatch some attorneys and find out what's going on. Or, we need to call the supervisor of elections in this region and find out what's going on.

FESSLER: And they won't be alone when they do. The political parties will also have teams of lawyers looking for potential balloting problems. And the U.S. Justice Department expects to have at least 800 monitors at polling sites across the country. Wan Kim is assistant attorney general for civil rights.

Mr. WAN KIM (Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights): They're basically looking to make sure that voters are not being intimidated, that voters are given access to the ballots in accordance with federal law. That in jurisdictions where the minority language provision requirements of the Voting Rights Act are in effect, that voters are having bilingual election materials presented to them.

FESSLER: Or that disabled voters get to vote in private, which is also required by federal law. The demand for help is expected to be great. About a third of the nation is using new voting equipment this year, and many voting rules have changed. Add to that the closeness of a number of congressional races, and it could be a mess.

Already, concerns have been raised about electronic voting equipment in Virginia and Texas that cuts off the last names of some candidates on a summary page. And legal challenges continue in Ohio and elsewhere over what kind of identification voters need. In Missouri, St. Louis County Election Director Joseph Goeke says he's more worried about fraud and voter registration forms submitted to his office.

Mr. JOSEPH GOEKE (Election Director, St. Louis County, Missouri): We had some where people had died in 2004. We had one that was a 15-year-old. We had a multitude of ones where they were unsigned because the solicitor had called up on the phone and had gotten information over the phone.

FESSLER: Now they're being reviewed by the U.S. Attorney's Office, which is also investigating thousands of registrations in Kansas City and the city of St. Louis. Officials say they're concerned that legitimate voters could be harmed by any registration mix up, but the Advancement Project - a civil rights group - complains that a request from St. Louis officials that new registrants call in to verify their applications is voter intimidation.

Other jurisdictions are just worried that they'll have enough ballots for voters to vote on because of a printing backlog. It's been especially troublesome in states such as Maryland, where there's an unprecedented demand for absentee ballots.

Doug Lewis is head of the Election Center, which advises election administrators.

Mr. DOUG LEWIS (Executive Director, The Election Center): The demand for printed ballots in this election really puts the process under great, great strain. The ballots may get there before Election Day, but some cases barely before Election Day.

FESSLER: And then, there are the unexpected glitches. Last week, hackers got into the election Web site for DuPage County, Illinois, and inserted a new voter qualification. It said they couldn't be homosexuals. Officials quickly removed the unauthorized entry and assured voters that hackers would not be able to tamper with actual election results.

Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: Of course, voting rules vary from state to state, so you can find a step-by-step guide to regulations and absentee balloting at our Web site, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty, philanthropy, and voting issues.
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