Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Oregon: Both parties keep tight eye on ballots

Volunteers watch as elections workers process votes, and instructions in a Republican manual raise some objections
Tuesday, October 19, 2004
As ballots pour in to county election offices around Oregon, volunteers from both major political parties are watching closely for questionable ballots, and they're collecting evidence that could be used to challenge the results.
The volunteers, squeezing into tight quarters around election workers, are even watching one another, suspicious that one side might grab an advantage as ballots are collected and counted in what is shaping into another nail-biter presidential race.
"Normally, the observers don't start this early in the process," said Eric Sample, spokesman for the Multnomah County Elections Division. "It's definitely a different level of intensity, a different level of scrutiny."
Ballots began showing up in voters' mailboxes over the weekend. As they're returned, election watchers dispatched by the parties are looking over the shoulders of election workers who check signatures on the envelopes against those on voter registration forms.
Later, the observers will check whether the ballots have been filled out correctly and put in the correct envelope, and whether the clerks handle them properly.
The boost this year in election oversight can be traced directly to the disputed 2000 presidential election. After vote counting in Florida was challenged, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled George W. Bush had won the state, giving him the presidency.
About a dozen states, including Oregon, could prove pivotal in deciding the outcome on Nov. 2, and they are where most of the attention on ballot handling is focused
In Oregon, the new emphasis on poll watching has raised hackles among Republicans and Democrats.
Democrats, pointing to a Republican "observation manual" that has been widely leaked, say Republicans are out to suppress turnout in Oregon as a way to help Bush beat his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.
"The Republicans' main goal is to make people uncomfortable and confused in the election process," said Adam Green, spokesman for the state Democratic Party. An example, he said, is "when Republicans talk about videotaping people as they go turn in their ballots."
Adams referred to a part of the nine-page GOP instruction manual that calls on volunteers to show up at ballot drop-off sites at 7:45 p.m. on election night, 15 minutes before the voting deadline.
"They should have a video camera and cell phone," states the manual, a copy of which was obtained by The Oregonian. "Their job is not to confront anyone, but to record and notify the proper officials of any activities that are not in compliance of federal, state or county election laws."
John Lindback, state elections director, looked at the Republican instruction manual and said it had a few "serious" problems. He, too, was concerned by the reference to video cameras at ballot drop-off sites.
"If they start videotaping when some people are still voting, some voters might consider that intimidating," Lindback said.
He also took issue with an implication in the manual that ballots dropped off after 8 p.m. are not to be counted.
According to the state Elections Division, voters in line by 8 p.m. will have their ballots counted, even if they haven't been turned in by the deadline. In most cases, a sheriff's deputy will stand at the end of the line to ensure no latecomers are allowed to vote.
But there are a lot of definitions of "in line," said Jeb Mason, executive director of Oregon Victory '04, the grass-roots organizing branch of the state Republican Party. Mason said his party's goal is the same as that of the Democrats -- to ensure a fair election.
"Our volunteers are there to help ensure every vote is counted and counted equally," Mason said. He rejected Green's notion that the effort is aimed at keeping voter turnout low. "We abhor any attempts to suppress voter turnout," he said.
He noted that the manual does not instruct volunteers to videotape voters, "but just to have the camera in case they see something suspicious."
If the manual is any indication, Republican election watchers will focus on whether ballots have been placed in the correct envelopes, and whether election workers properly reject ones that haven't. The manual also instructs volunteers to closely watch what happens to ballots and ballot boxes after the 8 p.m. deadline on election night.
Because there are so many instructions about how to identify a ballot for rejection, Democrats speculate that Republicans will try to challenge as many Multnomah County ballots as possible as an election tactic. Democrats far outnumber Republicans in the county, so the more ballots rejected, the better it would be for Bush's chances in Oregon, they say.
Mason said the same instructions are being sent to volunteers in all Oregon counties, and that most of them have been taken directly out of county election manuals.
"We want to make sure we have a clean election that people can trust the results of," he said.
What happens with evidence collected by the observers depends on the election results, said John DiLorenzo, a Portland attorney who represents state Republicans and the Bush-Cheney campaign in Oregon.
"I'll be keeping an eye on it," DiLorenzo said. "Oregon is a battleground state, but it's not the main battleground. But all that can change overnight."
DiLorenzo said Oregon's election process -- the only one in the country that is entirely done by mail -- is no more or less vulnerable to challenge. But he said the process still needs scrutiny based on anecdotes of mishaps and wrongdoing from the previous presidential election.
In Lane County, elections supervisor Annette Newingham said her office has become crowded with election watchers.
"It's been sort of escalating ever since 2000," Newingham said. "That's fine. We don't have a problem with that, except we have limited space. It's like a beehive around here."


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