Vote 'challengers' in Kentucky raise hackles - and specter of racism

GOP officials will fan out in search of voting fraud - but the tactics spur a backlash.

Jay O'Brien, a Louisville money manager, will vote Tuesday as he always does. But he won't stop there. He'll move from his precinct, in the upscale St. Matthews section of Louisville, to a polling station in the rougher neighborhood of California. He's not doing it to vote again, but to make sure others don't vote illegally.

Mr. O'Brien is one of a small army of Republican "challengers" monitoring Tuesday's election in Jefferson County. To him and to other Republicans, it's a safeguard for democracy: He's looking, after all, for felons, foreigners, or anyone else not eligible to vote. But to some Democrats, it's a case of voter intimidation that echoes Jim Crow days in the Old South. And it could set a precedent for the 2004 election, as a nation still jittery from the Florida fiasco of 2000 heads to the polls.

Extra poll watchers are allowed everywhere in the US. In the past, they were used mostly in the South, but today they're common in places like Chicago, Philadelphia, and Albany - aging urban areas where one party or another controls the political "machine." Even in those elections, though, challengers usually reside in the precincts they monitor.

Challengers are "part of the process," says Tom Patterson, a political science professor at Harvard University. But in Kentucky, critics say, the mobilization of mostly white challengers in poorer minority districts is a bold move to intimidate - and problematic, too, because challengers may not know the local terrain. They're being deployed amid a major voter-fraud investigation in the eastern Kentucky hills. And they come at a critical time: Jefferson County could swing a governor's election that Republicans haven't won since 1971.

"There seems to be a pattern of a power-grab by Republicans ... from Florida to California to Texas and now in the West End of Jefferson County," says Mark Riddle, executive director of the Kentucky Democratic Party. "Kentucky's elections, despite what popular opinion is, are clean and very well run."

Challengers don't actually go head-to-head with questionable voters. In fact, they're not allowed to talk with voters at all. Instead, they file official complaints to be investigated after the polls have closed. O'Brien and the other challengers took part in nonpartisan poll training.

Tuesday's election marks the first time the GOP has found enough conservative-leaning poll workers to fill its slots in some precincts. In fact, after years of rumors of botched elections, a recruitment drive brought in so many volunteers that there were extras. The "challengers" were born.

O'Brien says he's just helping correct a wrong - the historic lack of GOP poll workers, especially in the mostly-black neighborhoods by the Ohio River. "This is not a covert designation," he says. "It's as much a part of the election process as ... any other official. In my view, this whole challenge role is being really twisted."

But Republicans may have failed to realize how minority poll workers might perceive the outside supervision: "I find that insulting," says Donna Allen, a West End hair stylist. "It makes me think they don't trust us."

So far, the backlash is strong. On Friday, black leaders held a West End rally, decrying the Republican initiative and encouraging residents to vote. It also comes at a time when the US attorney has brought wide-ranging indictments for voter fraud in five eastern Kentucky counties - seen by Democrats as a below-the-belt hit to keep people away from the polls.

"The [challengers] have energized this population more than either candidate has been able to," says Mr. Riddle.

For some, it's personal. The recruitment goes back to a tight election in 1995, when Gov. Paul Patton squeaked into office - largely thanks to Jefferson County, which contributes up to 25 percent of state votes. Officials alleged widespread "irregularities," especially in the West End.

Those charges sharpened when Republican Mike Czerwonka, a Louisville contractor, took on the Democratic incumbent in the last election. He lost by less than 700 votes. In one precinct, he found that 15 more votes had been cast than there were signatures on the precinct rolls.

"There have been allegations of inappropriate behavior on the part of some labor-union representatives in some of the West End districts going back at least eight years," says a political activist in Richmond. Challengers, he says, serve as reminders of those allegations.

Mr. Czerwonka, who almost single-handedly recruited the county's 59 challengers, points out that 20 percent of the precincts they'll target are in mostly white areas, and that challengers include "all creeds and colors." "We want fair, honest, and open elections," he says.

Last year, he continues, "a friend of mine called and said, 'Mike, we've got a problem at Neighborhood House in Portland' - a white area - 'they're giving away ballots like they're Mardi Gras beads.' "

But fueling the backlash is a challenger-recruitment letter Czerwonka circulated, in which he calls the black labor unions a "militant" force encouraging voter fraud. Gubernatorial candidate US Rep. Ernie Fletcher (R) encouraged Czerwonka's recruitment, but has distanced himself from the letter. "Mike took it upon himself to send a memo to talk about voter integrity, but it was a very aggressive letter and by no means did we approve that," says Wes Irwin, a Fletcher spokesman.

To be sure, the current allegations of voter fraud don't compare to the days when politicians bought rounds at watering holes and slipped sawbucks around for votes. The challengers have hit a chord - but no one seems dissuaded from voting. Some predict a larger turnout in the West End - a district where less than 40 percent of voters came to polls in the last election.

On Broadway in the West End, boisterous teens empty out of school buses in a neighborhood of stately brownstones and Victorians. Many here are angry about the GOP gambit. But intimidated? Hardly. "Let them stand over my shoulder - I'm not afraid," says Lillie Royston, a cafeteria worker walking past Christ the King, a church where challengers will be Tuesday.

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