By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Federal authorities will be standing by to field complaints from Greater Cincinnati voters today as part of a nationwide crackdown on election fraud.
A federal prosecutor and FBI agents have been assigned to respond to complaints about ballot-box stuffing, discrimination at polling places or any other potential civil rights violations.
The federal involvement is part of a new program - the Voting Access and Integrity Initiative - that the U.S. Department of Justice launched last year. Since the program began, the number of election fraud and discrimination cases investigated nationwide has climbed from about two or three a year to more than 40 in 2002.
"This is something we established to help protect the integrity of the elections process," said Fred Alverson, spokesman for U.S. Attorney Gregory Lockhart.
Although no federal elections charges have been filed in Greater Cincinnati, Alverson said the FBI and federal prosecutors here have been trained to respond immediately if any allegations arise.
Ralph W. Kohnen, an assistant U.S. attorney in Cincinnati, is the district election officer assigned to deal with Election Day complaints.
It's the first time federal authorities have taken on such a job for an election that involves only local and statewide candidates and issues. Usually, they work only when federal candidates are on the ballot.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft expanded federal involvement when he launched the new initiative last year. The goal, he said, was to deter, detect and investigate elections violations.
"We've had no complaints (in the past) that would prompt a federal investigation here," Kohnen said. "But we want to be available in case that happens."
He said most of the complaints he and other federal authorities get on Election Day do not rise to a federal offense. More often, he said, complaints are about candidates passing out leaflets too close to polls, or about polling places open too late or closed too early.
Kohnen said complaints of that nature are forwarded to state or local officials.
Julia Stautberg, director of Hamilton County's Board of Elections, said her office has not yet received complaints from federal authorities but welcomes their increased involvement in the process. "I think it's a good level of security to have," Stautberg said.
Nationally, the complaints fielded since the initiative began last year involve people who were denied a vote because of their race or because poll workers were unwilling to explain or to answer questions about the ballot.
Anyone with complaints about possible federal violations may contact the U.S. Attorney's office at (513) 684-3711.
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