Parties wage loud battle over alleged efforts to intimidate voters

ORLANDO, Fla. – A few months ago, a state policeman came to the home of 80-year-old Charlie… ORLANDO, Fla. – A few months ago, a state policeman came to the home of 80-year-old Charlie Mae Thomas. Seems she had voted absentee in the local mayoral race. The officer was white, and armed. She, like pretty much everyone else in her neighborhood, is black.

He had some questions. Did she intend to vote by mail? Did anyone prepare the ballot? He was polite, she says, and soon went away.

Was this a legitimate crackdown on potential fraud, or an effort to discourage reliably Democratic voters?

In the hothouse atmosphere of Florida politics, the parties have spent weeks trading accusations of cheating, fraud and intimidation. Democrats say the Republican governor – whose brother is president – has conspired to suppress minority turnout, and some call the west Orlando incident part of that pattern.

Republicans say Democrats have trumped up complaints to prod voters to the polls.

The pattern will continue through Election Day, and perhaps beyond. Lawsuits over ballots, registrations and voting machines are already piling up, and not just in Florida. Both parties have recruited armies of lawyers – 10,000 apiece or more nationwide, some to challenge voters, others to ensure they can cast ballots. Such disputes could delay a result in Florida, a state that is again proving pivotal in a neck-and-neck presidential race.

It’s sometimes hard to distinguish between each party’s self-interest and genuine philosophical differences over the conduct of elections. Republicans want the letter of the law to be followed on registration, which might mean fewer new, Democratic-leaning voters. Democrats want as much flexibility for voters as possible, which could add to their totals.

“What you’re seeing is an attempt, through lawsuits and through intimidation, by Democrats to convert their allies’ registration fraud into voter fraud on Election Day,” Bush campaign manager Ken Mehlman told reporters the other day over lunch in Washington. “We will protect the integrity of the election process.”

Democrats call such allegations an effort to divert attention from incidents of voter suppression and intimidation orchestrated in Florida by Gov. Jeb Bush and other GOP officials.

Thomas’ tale is just one of dozens of exhibits in the escalating war of allegations. State authorities spoke with 50 to 75 elderly black voters after receiving complaints about ballot manipulation in the March mayoral race.

“This is nothing more than an effort to intimidate them,” said Eugene Poole, president of the Florida Voters League, a group that encourages minority turnout. “There’s a lot of anger out there in the black community about 2000, the way blacks have been disenfranchised. … It’s not just something that was trumped up.”

Thomas herself says she has given little thought to her encounter with state police, and fully intends to cast a ballot Tuesday.

“I’m always voting,” she said.

But like many black Floridians, she worries about the outcome. “I hope it gets done right this time. They stole it last time,” she said.

The allegations have been building for weeks.

A few weeks ago, Republicans uncovered a 66-page manual issued by the Democratic National Committee to field staff. It states, “If no signs of intimidation techniques have emerged yet, launch a pre-emptive strike” by lining up local minority leaders to voice “concern about the threat of intimidation tactics.”

Republicans called that smoking-gun proof of a cynical plan to enrage voters without merit. Democrats insisted that the guide’s contents were taken out of context and that in light of the 2000 Florida debacle, anything is fair game.

“I want everybody to know that they need to use what happened in the past, the issues around the 2000 election, as a motivating force to make sure that nobody but nobody will allow their votes to be disenfranchised,” said DNC Chairman Terry McAuliffe. “This year the Democrats intend to make sure that every registered voter can actually vote and that every legitimate ballot that is cast will actually be counted.”

While Florida is ground zero for such complaints, they are spread over other battleground states. In Ohio, for instance, the Defiance County sheriff arrested a man for submitting 130 phony registration forms with such names as Mary Poppins and Dick Tracy. Authorities say he confessed to being paid in crack cocaine by an NAACP volunteer.

Republicans have also tried to challenge 35,000 new registrations, mostly in the Cleveland and Columbus areas. Democrats won an initial court fight to block the challenges, which they say are aimed disproportionately at poor and minority voters.

In southern Florida, Palm Beach County GOP chairman Sid Dinerstein accused Democrats of trying to import votes from New York and other states with Democrats to spare.

He cited Operation Snowbird, brainchild of Lawrence Caplan, a Boca Raton tax lawyer who four years ago went to court over Dick Cheney’s last-minute registration as a Wyoming voter. He argued that as a longtime Dallas taxpayer and voter, Cheney was ineligible to vote in Wyoming; a Dallas federal judge threw out the suit.

This time, Caplan set up a website urging part-year Florida residents to vote in the Sunshine State, explaining on that state law requires only that one declare intent to become a legal resident, not spend a certain amount of time in the state.

“The only reason the Web site is viable is because the Legislature, which has been in Republican hands, has a very liberal – pardon the word – and vague statute,” Caplan said.

He warned people against double-voting, which is illegal, but noted there’s nothing to stop them from switching back to another state for the next election.

Dinerstein, the Palm Beach GOP leader, called it an overt effort to steal the state’s 27 electoral votes.

Democratic ire in Florida has been focused on Jacksonville, where four years ago, 27,000 votes in predominantly black precincts were thrown out for various reasons. This time around, the local elections supervisor refused to open more than one early voting site in black areas of the county, though he ended up resigning and the governor promised to open more sites.

Democrats offer a litany of complaints aimed at a Bush appointee, Secretary of State Glenda Hood. One of the biggest involves a deeply flawed list of felons her office tried to use to scrub ineligible voters from the state’s rolls.

She and the governor agreed to scrap that list after two months of outcry, after news media reported that at least 2,500 of the 48,000 people listed had had their voting rights restored. Reports surfaced a few weeks ago suggesting Bush had been told about the flaws from the outset. He and Hood deny that.

But Democrats have been touring the state accusing Republicans of trying to thwart them.

“He knew it was a flawed list,” said U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, head of the Kerry campaign in Florida. “He knew eligible voters were on the list, and he told them move forward with the list. That’s voter suppression, point blank, by the highest officer in the state of Florida.”

In Orlando’s Washington Shores neighborhood, the state’s investigation of voter fraud is still pending. So is a U.S. Justice Department investigation of the state investigation. Ultimately, the net effect may be extra motivation for those who don’t feel deterred.

“I haven’t been intimidated,” said 90-year-old Andrew Reed, a retired Air Force master sergeant. “I just go and vote.”

(c) 2004, The Dallas Morning News.

Visit The Dallas Morning News on the World Wide Web at

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.