Florida braces for fights at the polls over who can vote

Republicans consider challenges to some voters. Democrats claim that's an intimidation tactic.

Since the 2000 presidential election, Florida Republicans have signed up 462,000 new party members.

During the same period, they have watched with dismay as more than 1 million Democrats and independents have joined the state's voter rolls.

It is this significant registration gap combined with projections of heavy voter turnout Tuesday that some analysts say explains why the Republicans are considering an Election Day strategy of challenging the legality of voter registrations.

Just as in Ohio, another key battleground state, Republicans in Florida are taking a hard line against what they say is rampant fraud. Indeed, Florida has a history of voters seeming to rise from the dead to cast ballots in close races.

But critics see the GOP effort as an attempt to overcome the registration gap by discouraging turnout. Some are concerned that such challenges could create bottlenecks at key Democratic precincts.

Under a plan approved by Florida election officials, any challenges to would-be voters at the polls are to be immediately moved to a nearby location and quickly adjudicated. In addition, officials have a new tool that may help speed the process - provisional voting. In the event of a challenge, voters must be given an opportunity to cast a provisional ballot, and those votes will later be counted or disqualified based on subsequent investigation.

Whether this process helps Democrats or Republicans remains to be seen. But what is certain is that it sets the stage for significant postelection litigation if, once again, the Florida vote is too close to call by late Tuesday night.

Republican Party officials defend their tactic as an effort to prevent voter fraud by upholding laws they say are not being adequately enforced.

Critics say it smacks of intimidation and harassment, particularly in Florida's African-American community. There are 1 million registered African-American Democrats in Florida versus 62,000 African-American Republicans.

"If they are successful, the desired impact is intimidation, frustration, and lack of participation," says Lee Harris, pastor at Mt. Olive Primitive Church and a member of the Jacksonville Leadership Coalition, which is working to ensure fair and open elections in Duval County.

Mr. Harris says he expects African-American turnout to be the highest in Duval County history. But he is worried that aggressive Republican tactics may cause some individuals to stay home.

Mindy Tucker Fletcher of the Florida Republican Party says a significant number of Floridians are illegally registered to vote. She says state law empowers citizens and the parties to raise challenges. "There is a guy named 'Howard The F. Duck' registered in Broward County. I'm guessing he's not a real person," Ms. Fletcher says. "What if someone requested an absentee ballot for him and mailed it in?"

Last week, the Republican Party released a list of 925 felons who the party says are illegally registered to vote. All had already voted in the 2004 race or had requested an absentee ballot.

The list includes 580 Democrats, 214 Republicans, and 127 independents. Reporters at the St. Petersburg Times contacted several individuals on the list and found it included convicted felons who appear to have voted illegally. They also discovered it included convicted felons who have had their voting rights restored and are entitled to vote.

Florida law mandates that convicted felons lose the right to vote. But the law also permits restoration of the right with approval of state officials.

The felon voting issue was a major source of confusion and unfairness during the 2000 election. Many legally registered voters were stricken from the rolls - and prevented from voting - as a result of an inaccurate list of disqualified voters.

Rather than correct the deficiencies, officials again relied on an inaccurate list that would have disqualified many valid voters in an attempt to prevent former felons from going to the polls. Voting rights groups said the list appeared to disproportionately target blacks.

As a result of the outcry, the elections department announced in July that it would not seek to enforce the felon list. But the Republican Party appears to have taken up where the state left off.

Fletcher denies the Republican effort is aimed at suppressing the African-American vote: "They act as if we are trying to stop legally registered people from voting, and that is not what is happening."

Ray Zeller, Democratic chairman in Miami-Dade County, says election officials in his county are strictly enforcing the law: "There is no way a felon can go through the system, get a registration card, and vote."

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