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Poll watchers eye one another
Both Republicans and Democrats say their poll watchers will be there to help, while accusing their opponents of trying to interfere.
By WILL VAN SANT
Published November 2, 2004
BROOKSVILLE - The contested Florida election of 2000 and the heated partisanship of the 2004 presidential race have raised the profile of the poll watcher.
Today, Hernando voters will see these longtime Election Day fixtures out in greater numbers than ever before, trying to shape turnout and win.
Republican poll watchers say their mission is to prevent vote fraud. Their Democratic counterparts charge that Republican challengers are out to intimidate minority voters.
It's a scenario that will be played out across the country today in battleground states like Florida that are expected to decide the contest between President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry.
Here in Hernando, Republicans have 25 poll watchers, or challengers, who will be posted today at county voting precincts 4, 11, 18, 22, 23, 29, 32, 35, 36, 39, 41, 45, 50 and 54. Democrats have 14 challengers patrolling precincts 11, 15, 18, 19, 29, 34, 39 and 45.
Steve Zeledon, a member of the county Democratic Executive Committee and a local Democratic activist, will be at Precinct 11, which encompasses a heavily African-American area of south Brooksville.
"We are looking for the challenges to come primarily from Republicans who are looking to slow and delay voting lines, especially in minority districts," Zeledon said.
Ana Trinque, county Republican Executive Committee chairwoman, called the allegation ridiculous.
"That's just political rhetoric coming from the Democrats," she said. "We are not trying to discourage anything. We just want to have the laws followed."
Unlike Democrats, Trinque said, who are willing to send anybody, even "foreigners," into the voting booth, she and her GOP colleagues want only eligible voters to cast ballots.
If somebody attempts to vote outside their assigned precinct, or has no identification or registration card, it will catch the attention of challengers, Trinque said.
Yet more than suspicion is required to successfully challenge a potential voter, according to Elizabeth Townsend, a representative for the Supervisor of Elections Office.
The challenger must have personal knowledge and/or evidence of ineligibility. If they knowingly challenge a voter falsely, they could be charged with a felony, Townsend said.
Even if appropriate evidence is produced and the clerk at a given polling place approves a challenge, the voter will still be given the opportunity to fill out a provisional ballot.
If the challenge is later found to be baseless, the provisional ballot will be included in the day's vote tally.
Zeledon had this advice for voters who may be challenged today at the polls.
"Stay calm," he said. "Don't panic. Quietly fill out the provisional ballot. And do it as quickly as you can, because the point of the challenge is to delay the vote."
A full 26 percent, or one in four Hernando voters, however, will be spared the possibility of partisan challengers.
These early birds have already done their civic duty. In all, 13,854 voters cast early ballots for today's election, with 1,718 of them doing so Monday. Registered Democrats accounted for 6,182 of the early votes cast; Republicans, 5,615; and those registered as having no party, 1,635.
The remainder of those voting early belonged to various minor parties.
As of Monday evening, the county Supervisor of Elections Office had received 15,165 absentee ballots out of 17,626 requested. Officials could not provide a breakdown of absentee ballots by party affiliation.
Standing in line Monday to vote early at the Forest Oaks Government Center were Raul and Margo Rodriguez, who moved to Spring Hill from Astoria, Queens, 10 months ago.
Both Kerry supporters - they characterized President Bush as an arrogant dictator. The couple said they were voting early both out of convenience and because they are leery of the election process in Florida.
After all, in 2000, the state was the laughingstock of the nation and the world, they said.
"Up north," Raul Rodriguez said, "it did not look good."