WASHINGTON – While the 2000 election (search) may have seemed confusing, it could turn out to be child's play compared to the potential fight brewing over the vote count this year.
Most state election officials say they are determined to avoid the nasty partisan squabbles of four years ago. In Florida that year, for example, Democrats accused then-Secretary of State Katherine Harris of helping to get George W. Bush elected. She was a co-chair of Bush's 2000 Florida campaign while at the same time the chief elections official for the state.
Though officials are adamant, with 25 percent of elections districts having changed their voting systems in the last four years — adding touch screens and optical scanners, retraining poll workers and facing increased voter registrations — political fights and lawsuits are already under way, and they could impact the election in nearly a dozen states across the country.
"We've got a recipe for chaos," said Bill Adair of the St. Petersburg Times in Florida. "You are going to have people coming to the polls who believe that they were registered and for some reason may not be. You've got questions about provisional ballots. In Florida, we have early voting and already a lot of controversy about early voting, which begins in the next week or so.
"In Duvall County, Jacksonville, some of the black leaders are concerened because there is only one site for early voting in the entire county and so they feel like their constituency is not being given enough opportunity to go. There are long lines, and add to that hundreds and hundreds of lawyers who are going to be dispatched into all the key precincts," he said.
In the battleground states of Ohio and Missouri, Democrats have accused Republican secretaries of state of writing election rules that could disenfranchise legitimate voters likely to support John Kerry. In New Mexico and Iowa, Republicans say Democratic officials are making it easier for Kerry supporters to vote than Bush supporters.
Both the Bush and Kerry camps say no one is taking the voting process for granted this time around.
"I have to give both sides credit for taking [this] very seriously and being much better prepared this time," said Bush campaign communications director Nicole Devenish. "There's an effort to be better prepared this election day."
"We learned the hard way that there is some manipulation that goes on, and John Kerry [is making] sure we're very prepared to protect people's right to vote," said Kerry senior adviser Michael Meehan.
But even with the close eye on Election Day, a surge in voter registration has made it difficult for elections officials to keep up with the large demand to be counted. Newspaper reporter Jessica Jerrick, the daughter of FOX News' Mike Jerrick, said when she called the supervisor of elections to find out her polling location in Broward County, Fla., she was told her registration form hadn't yet been processed.
She had a friend and fellow reporter go down to the elections office to look into the situation.
"They said, 'Well, you're welcome to jump in and start digging through the pile of backlog registration forms,'" Jerrick said, adding that she wasn't sure if they were joking. "Then again, later that week, I got an e-mail from the director of the registration department at the elections office requesting volunteers to come down due to the enormous backlog of registration forms in their office."
Jerrick said elections officials said they were still processing Sept. 9 registration forms this week, and 10,000 additional forms were received last week.
"I have no idea how they are going to process all of those registration forms by Election Day, especially by ... the early voting date of Oct. 18, for people who want to vote early," she said.
Adair said he doesn't think anyone anticipated that the 527 independent political groups, especially Democratic groups, would have been able to get so many people to register.
"There are huge stacks everywhere and they have got to be input quickly before the election," he said.
One final point of contention for the political parties is a new federal law that requires all states to give voters whose names do not appear on the rolls a so-called "provisional ballot" to fill out and be counted if it is determined later they are properly registered. Democrats say this could help voters who were turned away in 2000, when 537 votes in Florida made all the difference.
FOX News' Julie Kirtz contributed to this report.