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Gov. Bush: Poll watchers can, should challenge voters

His remarks come amid concerns that excessive scrutiny may put a damper on the election.

By JONI JAMES and TAMARA LUSH
Published October 28, 2004

TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Jeb Bush said Wednesday he would have no problem if Republican poll watchers challenge the eligibility of voters before they cast ballots on Election Day, despite growing concern that it could create gridlock and scare away qualified voters.

"I don't think it will cause problems," Bush said. "I do think that people who are not eligible to vote shouldn't and the people who are should."

The Florida Republican Party has not decided whether to instruct poll watchers to challenge voters Tuesday, spokeswoman Mindy Fletcher said.

But Democrats say a GOP list of 2,663 newly registered voters in Duval County who appear to have incorrect addresses indicates Republicans are planning such a strategy.

"It's despicable," Florida Democratic Party chairman Scott Maddox said. "Their goal is to harass people enough that they'll give up their right to vote or not go to the polls."

Fletcher said the Duval list will not be used to challenge voters but to revise the Republicans' mailing list.

Republicans and Democrats have signed up thousands of poll watchers who will be inside precincts to monitor voters. A rarely used provision of state law allows poll watchers to challenge an individual's qualifications to vote by writing a sworn affidavit. The challenge is resolved on the spot by election workers, or by having the voter cast a provisional ballot.

In Pinellas County, for example, 275 Republicans and 339 Democrats will work as poll watchers. In Hillsborough County, there will be 277 Republicans and 496 Democrats. In Pasco County, there will be 55 Republicans and 64 Democrats.

"My big concern is that you are going to have people sitting in these polling places with their finger on a hair trigger because they want some action," said Pasco Elections Supervisor Kurt Browning, a Republican. "I would hope and pray that both parties think this thing through."

Hillsborough Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson met with a John Kerry lawyer this week to discuss how to handle challenges from Republican lawyers.

"We are hopefully going to rely on civility, and beyond that, we are going to rely on law enforcement," Johnson said.

The concept of challenging voters isn't restricted to Florida. In Ohio, Republicans already have challenged the eligibility of 35,000 of Ohio's 800,000 newly registered voters.

Florida Democrats on Wednesday released a memo sent to state and local election officials insisting such challenges should be rare, accompanied by irrefutable proof and not disruptive to other voters.

The Democratic Party and Kerry's campaign said it will have 7,000 poll watchers in Florida on Election Day, including 1,500 lawyers.

"We made sure we are prepared for ugly tactics," said Christine Anderson, spokeswoman for the combined Democratic campaign. "It seems to us the Republicans are making a very proactive and blatant strategy to discourage turnout and deny citizens the right to vote."

Republicans say they want to ensure that illegally cast votes do not dilute the power of legally registered voters.

"What we're doing is looking at making sure that the law is enforced," Fletcher said. "We are in the process of looking at the (challenge) process and making sure we know what is the best way to make sure legal votes aren't disenfranchised by illegal votes."

The GOP built its list of newly registered Duval voters who appear to have incorrect addresses by recording returned mail from a broad mailing the party sent out. Tucker Fletcher said the mailing was sent to all newly registered voters, regardless of party.

The British Broadcasting Corp., which reported the list included voters in predominantly black precincts in Duval, suggested the list would be used to challenge voters.

But Fletcher said that account was inaccurate.

"The information created from this mailing will not be used in any way, shape or form to challenge," Fletcher said. The Democrats find "anything they can and try to accuse us of intimidating or trying to suppress black voters, and it's just not true."

In Jacksonville, where leaders of the African-American community successfully lobbied the county to increase the number of early voting sites, Pastor James B. Sampson was concerned that voters might be challenged at the polls.

"Who would have ever thought that we would still be fussing and fighting, still be going through all this drama about voting in America?" asked Sampson.

But Bush expressed frustration about the attention focused on election procedures.

"These are all marginal issues. ... I hope people would keep it in the proper perspective: 99.9 percent of the people that are voting have already voted before in other elections," he said, "and every vote will be counted and it will be done fairly."

Among other election-related issues Wednesday:

* Bush said he has recused himself from the Election Canvassing Commission, which certifies the state's final vote.

* In Broward County, officials searched for 58,000 ballots that have not been returned. Officials said they sent 126,220 absentee ballots on Oct. 7-8, yet half of those have not been received by elections officials. The U.S. Post Office denied any responsibility, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said its investigation found no criminal violations. Elections officials planned to send new ballots by overnight mail to any voter requesting a new form.

* In Pinellas County, officials acknowledged that nearly 300 St. Petersburg voters received absentee ballots that were missing the second of two pages.

Supervisor Deborah Clark's office mailed the missing page to affected voters along with an explanation and a postage-paid envelope.

* State elections officials urged county supervisors to post signs or put up ropes to ensure privacy for voting booths after reports of campaigning at early voting sites.

* Computers used to check voter registrations were slow or malfunctioning in Broward, Duval and Hillsborough counties. On Tuesday, Hillsborough County's registration network went down for about 30 minutes. Workers used the telephone to verify registrations.

* Long lines at early voting precincts were reported throughout the Tampa Bay area and the state. Hillsborough reported 43,000 early voters as of Tuesday. Early voters in Pinellas reported lines of more than two hours in some locations.

- Times staff writers Steve Bousquet and David Karp and researcher Deirdre Morrow contributed to this report, which used information from the Associated Press.

[Last modified October 28, 2004, 00:42:16]

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