MIAMI – Tensions have been mounting in the runup to the presidential election as Florida politicians trade accusations over claims of fraud, missing absentee ballots and concerns that thousands of voter registrations will be challenged in "hand-to-hand combat at the precincts" on Nov. 2.
Workers at Broward County's elections office prepared 1,000 absentee ballots for overnight shipment to Floridians in other states, and expected to send up to 14,000 ballots by Friday to residents who requested them weeks ago.
The U.S. Postal Service (search) has denied mishandling the ballots, but a regional manager worried in an internal e-mail that his staff seemed unaware of procedures for processing them, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported in Friday editions.
South Florida District Manager Butch Parker (search) wrote Tuesday that absentee ballots with improper postage sat idle in postal facilities instead of being returned to their sender, and that they "continue to find absentee ballots mixed in with other classes of mail."
Meanwhile, state Republican leaders said they are protecting "the integrity of the process" by compiling a list of voters who they say are improperly registered and should not be allowed to cast ballots Tuesday.
"I presume they will use it as a basis for challenges," said Howard Simon, the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Florida. "And when they're using a list that's very likely inaccurate for challenges, I think we're in for hand-to-hand combat at the precincts."
Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie said he was "disconcerted" by claims that supporters of Democratic challenger John Kerry are clogging early voting locations and attempting to dissuade backers of President Bush from voting.
"Some folks have been intimidated to the point where they turned away from the lines," Gillespie alleged.
Democrats dismissed Gillespie's accusation and said Republicans are the ones trying to keep Tuesday's turnout low. They pointed to a series of announcements in recent weeks by the Republican National Committee, calling them "empty fraud allegations" designed to suppress voting.
"Yet again, we're hearing that the Republican Party is crying fraud," Kerry campaign spokeswoman Christine Anderson said. "This is a very clear strategy on their part to lay the groundwork for Election Day challenges. We have clearly stated that we do not plan to challenge voters on Election Day, and that's a promise they simply can't make."
The absentee ballot issue was murkier than ever in Broward County, a hotspot in the recount battle in the 2000 presidential election before the Supreme Court declared George W. Bush the winner by 537 votes.
About 58,000 ballots were mailed on Oct. 7 and 8, according to county officials, who said many either did not arrive at residents' homes or didn't arrive in a timely way.
Broward County elections supervisor Brenda Snipes said Thursday that her office has sent out some 128,000 absentee ballots this year, that 72,000 completed ballots have already been returned, and she expects 40,000 more by Tuesday.
Residents who requested ballots but haven't gotten them are being told to call the election office for replacements by overnight mail. There are concerns, however, that the mailing glitch could create confusion with individuals having two ballots or being forced to file provisional ballots on Election Day.
"I think it was more of a delay than ballots being lost. ... The extent of the problem is not going to be as great as it may appear," Snipes said.
In Palm Beach County, meanwhile, hundreds of members of the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans say they haven't received their absentee ballots. Other large counties, such as Miami-Dade and Pinellas, report no such trouble.