updated 10/15/2004 1:38:59 PM ET 2004-10-15T17:38:59

Political activists and national lawmakers are warning that a new law to ensure that millions of eligible voters are not turned away from the polls this year could end up causing Election Day hassles as infamous as those in Florida in 2000.

Under a law approved by Congress in 2002, all states must offer a backup ballot to any registered voter whose name does not appear on the rolls at his or her polling place on Nov. 2. If the voter is later found eligible, the vote counts.

When should provisional ballot count?
But the lawmakers did not specify how this type of “provisional ballot” voting should be evaluated. As a result, some state election officials have adopted their own standards for when a provisional ballot should count. 

“We are very concerned that people will go to the polls with a false sense of security that they will be able to vote and be told that they cannot,” says Tanya Clay, deputy director of public policy for the Washington-based People for the United Way Foundation.

“We would not like a repeat of Florida in 2000, where thousands of people were not allowed to vote, or the votes of those who voted were thrown out. We think that people should be allowed to vote, especially for federal offices, even if they are in the wrong polling place. This year, we are preparing for the worst, but hoping for the best.”

Some of these standards are being challenged in battleground states, where the race for the presidency is tight. Plaintiffs have filed lawsuits in Ohio, Colorado, Florida, Michigan and Missouri, claiming that election officials are adopting too strict a standard of the provisional system of voting.

In Ohio, for example, a federal judge is expected to rule later this week in a suit filed by the Democratic Party and a coalition of non-partisan organizations led by the League of Women Voters. The suit challenges Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell’s directive to local boards of elections not to give voters provisional ballots unless they are at the correct polling place. They cite a letter he sent to Michael Vu, director of the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections, in which he threatened that "failure to comply with my lawful directives will result in official action, which may include removal of the board and its director."

Lawsuit filed
The lawsuit also claims that the directive discriminates against minorities and low-income voters who move more often than other voters.
Blackwell, who is an African American and a staunch supporter of President Bush, has said that he is only following his interpretation of the law.

But that is not the way U.S. Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones sees it. She is a vocal critic of Blackwell’s action and is concerned about the Ohio voters will again be disenfranchised.

"Mr. Blackwell claims to be upholding the law while blatantly disregarding it," she told reporters recently.

Norman Robbins, who is involved in voter registration activities, said that in the 2000 presidential election, up to 90,000 Ohioans were disenfranchised because of voting errors, including approximately 76,000 due to punch-card errors. Officials say that the error rate was far higher in wards or counties with low-income people.  For instance, Robbins pointed out, the discard rate in the city of Cleveland was 1 in 25, compared with the wealthier suburbs, where  1 in 50 were thrown out.

"Zero-tolerance policy"   
Jim Dyke, director of communications for the Republican National Committee, said that his party will not stand for any shenanigans when it comes to voter rights.

“The Republican party has a zero-tolerance policy for anything that smacks of impropriety in registering voters and we challenge our Democratic counterparts whose selective outrage does not apply to Democrat aligned groups like ACT, ACORN and others despite widespread allegations of systematic voter registration fraud to do the same,” Dyke said in a statement. “Anyone who engages in fraudulent voter registration activities should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."  

Lawyers for President Bush and his Democratic opponent Sen. John Kerry, are ready prepared to contest votes in states where, if the election is close enough, the winner could be determined by who gets enough valid provisional votes.

The Election Protection Coalition, a coalition of civil rights and civic organizations, has set up a number, 1-800-OUR-VOTE to offer help to voters who may experience unfair treatment at the polls.

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