WASHINGTON – As the final stretch of the presidential race arrives, activists from both parties have been racing against the clock to register as many voters as possible.
But while state election officials said they support the expansion of voter rolls, some expressed concern that they would not be able to process every application before next week's registration deadlines.
That means many voters' names might not appear on the rolls on Election Day. It could also lead to a host of other administrative problems that would disenfranchise voters.
"What we're hearing are reports that the states are having trouble processing some of these because there's so many new registrations," said election law expert Trevor Potter (search) , former chairman of the Federal Election Commission. "T he state offices in these areas — and they're the ones who bear the burden — or the county offices, are understaffed."
Potter emphasized that the problems were mainly logistical.
"They often are sort of slow in picking up new technologies," he said. "They're doing a lot of this still by hand, and they're just overwhelmed."
In some states, particularly hotly contested ones expected to be decided by slim margins, voter registration has sparked a bitter partisan fight.
Republicans fear that unless time is taken to verify forms, the sheer volume of new registrations will result in fraudulent votes being cast. Democrats claim that Republicans are simply trying to suppress the vote.
Jim Jordan, an activist with the New Mexico chapter of America Coming Together (search), a Democratic organization that has registered hundreds of thousands of new voters, said states could keep up with the registration if officials were willing to do so.
"We fear that Republican election officials are dragging their feet and purposely hindering us from registering new voters," he said.
New Mexico, he said, is expected to be a squeaker and a high voter turnout might swing the vote in favor of Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee.
"The last election, it was 366 votes [that] separated [President Bush and then-Vice President Al Gore]. If it's anywhere close to that, you can count on it, this registration drive will turn it against the president," Jordan said.
New Mexico Republicans, however, said that the closeness of the race in their state was the very reason that there can be no room for error.
Sen. Pete Domenici (search), a Republican and the state's senior senator, said signs of fraud have already cropped up.
"One father complained because his 13-year-old son got a notification that he had registered," Domenici said.
In Ohio, Secretary of State J. Kenneth Blackwell (search ) attempted to invalidate thousands of registrations by invoking an obscure law requiring voter registration forms to be printed on heavy paper stock, sparking a revolt among voter advocates.
Many voters today register online, by mail or through off-site voter registration drives on photocopied forms.
Experts and officials said that high-volume, off site-registrations conducted by partisan groups immediately raise questions of fraud.
"Are they entitled to vote? Are they citizens? Prohibited from voting?" Potter said. "One of the problems is that in every election, we'll have people go into nursing homes of people with Alzheimer's and come out with 200 absentee votes," he said.
"There is a balance here," he added. "Democrats want to make sure every vote counted, Republicans want to make sure every vote is a legal vote," he said.
According to the provisions of the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (search ), the federal law that revamped election laws, first-time voters will be required to show ID at the polls.
However, this too may be ineffective in combatting voter fraud. In New Mexico, the law has been interpreted so that the person who registered another person to vote can vouch for him at the polls, in place of the new voter showing identification.
"Somebody can take 15, 20, I assume 100 first-time applicants and that person can present them, and that is 'in person' for each one of them," said Domenici. The interpretation is being challenged in court.
Domenici wants all first-time voters who did not register at state offices to be required to show identification at the polls. Voter advocacy and Democratic groups, however, vehemently oppose this provision of the act, claiming that requiring ID at the polls constitutes harassment and disproportionately discriminates against minorities and the poor.
"Unfortunately, in this country, there's a history of harassment at the polls," Jordan said.
"The complaint about producing ID is either that it will seem very Big Brother-ish and scare people off, or that in fact, it will disproportionately affect people who don't have driver's licenses, and they tend to be poorer people in urban areas," Potter said.
According to Potter, urban areas have high rates — as much as 5-7 percent — of voters being denied their right to vote at the polling place.
For voters who do show up to find themselves not on the books, the law allows for the casting of a provisional ballot, one that will be set aside and counted once the registration has been verified after the election — if the election is tight.
Provisional ballots have never been used before in the United States, and their debut likely will be rocky. Many voters are expected to show up at the polls without the appropriate I.D., and many election experts on both sides of the aisle are anticipating chaos at the polls, not to mention plenty of lawsuits.
Much of the confusion can be blamed on the federal government, which had four years to improve the conditions that created the 2000 debacle, but did not.
Congress voted to provide states with money for new voting equipment and technology to improve voting systems, but much of that money has still not yet been distributed to the states, and will not get to the states in time to have any real impact on this election.
The administration also was slow in nominating new members to the Federal Election Commission (search).
Potter said that if 2004 is a repeat of 2000 — a close election mired in serious voting issues and problems — Americans are going to blame the government.
"I think everyone is going to be running around looking for a scapegoat here to say, 'How did we allow this to happen? How did we end up with yet another presidential election where we had all these voting issues?'" Potter said. "We were supposed to be one of the oldest democracies in the world. We have high levels of tech expertise. Why didn't we get it right with four years worth of warning?"