CINCINNATI (Reuters) - Americans used to wait for problems on election day before crying vote fraud, but both sides have already launched charges of disenfranchisement and cheating ahead of the November 4 U.S. presidential election.
Republican presidential candidate John McCain vaulted state squabbles over voter registration onto the national agenda this month when he said one group was on the brink of pulling off the greatest election fraud in history.
The community group ACORN, which fights poverty and registers voters, is “on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy,” McCain told a television audience of some 56 million during his final debate with his Democratic rival Barack Obama.
And the race was on.
There are now complaints or legal challenges over voting lists, absentee voting and erratic voting machines, and lawyers for both sides have descended on states where a close outcome is expected in case problems arise on election day.
The charges and counter-charges boil down to two basic concerns: conservatives worry ineligible voters will cast a ballot on election day, while liberals worry marginalized groups like racial minorities and the poor -- who tend to vote Democrat -- will be prevented from voting.
The concern is exacerbated this year because Obama, who would be the first black U.S. president, has inspired millions of people who have never voted before, including young people and blacks, overwhelming what critics say was an already underfunded and piecemeal balloting system.
Michael Waldman, executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice, a voting rights group at New York University School of Law, said allegations of voter registration fraud surface every election year and have always proven overblown.
“Every study that has looked at whether there is widespread voter fraud has concluded that there is not,” he said. “It’s simply an urban myth, and it’s used every two years to justify policies that would kick eligible voters off the rolls.”
In 2000, a ballot debacle in Florida ended in the Supreme Court’s decision that Republican George W. Bush had won the state and thus the presidency. In 2004, problems with voter rolls and voting machines left thousands of mostly poor people unable to vote in Ohio, the state that decided the re-election of Bush.
This year, Ohio is again at the center of the controversy. State Republicans and Democrats have launched at least six lawsuits, the state’s election website has been hacked, and the top election official has received death threats.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against a Republican lawsuit challenging the status of some 200,000 newly registered Ohio voters whose details do not match other government records. The so-called “mismatch” problem has plagued other states, including Florida and Wisconsin.
But it is the revelation that ACORN workers faked thousands of voter registrations that has sparked Republican fury. ACORN workers have been accused of registering the starting line-up of the Dallas Cowboys football team in Nevada and of “Jimmy Johns,” a sandwich shop, in Lake County, Indiana.
ACORN has said it flags all suspicious registrations and that it has fired workers who fake voter cards.
“The problem is our temp workers who are trying to defraud ACORN by pretending to do work that they have not done,” ACORN spokesman Charles Jackson told Reuters.
Republican leaders, radio and cable talk show hosts and conservative bloggers have pounced on the ACORN case.
In a letter on Thursday to U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, the co-chairmen of McCain’s election committee said that some false registrations -- such as “Mickey Mouse” -- would be easy to catch and thus no threat to the election.
However, they worried others, including duplicate registrations, could slip through -- especially in states that do not require photo identification to vote.
“The nightmare scenario we fear is that the 2008 election will be a rerun of 2000 and, if the election is as close as many expect, neither side will concede to the other on election night,” co-chairmen John Danforth and Warren Rudman wrote.
But Ohio’s Democratic governor, Ted Strickland, has accused Republicans of trying to intimidate legitimate voters registered by ACORN from trying to vote.
A spokeswoman for Common Cause, a nonprofit citizen’s group, agreed -- and warned the escalation of anti-ACORN rhetoric is a sure sign legal challenges will come immediately after the election if the race turns out to be close.
Additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Ed Stoddard in Dallas, editing by Jackie Frank