Sunday, October 31, 2004
Election paranoia running rampant
Bizarre rumors deepen suspicions
By Carl Weiser and Sergio Bustos, Enquirer Washington Bureau
and Gregory Korte, Enquirer staff writer
WASHINGTON - The Democrats are planning to truck in loads of Mexicans to vote for Sen. John Kerry in New Mexico.
In Cincinnati, the police are arresting young black men so they won't be around to vote for Kerry on Election Day.
Neither, of course, is true. But these rumors testify to one of the most distinguishing - and disturbing - aspects about this election: Paranoia is rampant.
"I haven't seen an election in which more people are worried about what's going to happen to them on Election Day," said Herb Asher, an Ohio State University political science professor. "This really is different this year. You have both sides who are absolutely suspicious of each other."
Most of the paranoia is directly related to the election process itself. Democrats fear that Republicans will find ways to stop minorities and the poor from voting. Republicans fear Democratic urban machines will load up polling places with fake voters.
Such fears spring from a race already dominated by sometimes bizarre conspiracy theories, such as:
Bush had some kind of transmitting device on his back during the debates or that he knows where Osama bin Laden is and is waiting to pull him out until just before the election.
Kerry was actually an agent of Hanoi or that he gets a nickel every time someone buys Heinz ketchup.
The paranoia, especially in battleground states such as Ohio, is "just rampant," said Larry Higdon, an independent who is chairman of the Cincinnati chapter of Common Cause, a good-government group.
"It would be comical if it wasn't so serious," Higdon said. Some of his friends fear there might even be violence if the losing side believes it has been cheated, he said.
Said Ohio Secretary of State Ken Blackwell, the man charged with making sure the state's election is fair: "There is a high level of mistrust on both sides of the aisle. Democrats seem to believe that there is an intent to suppress votes around every corner. And Republicans believe that there's a counterfeit voter around ever corner."
The possible impact: lawsuits and endless litigation - and lingering distrust in the system. Blackwell said that unlike close elections in 1960 and 1976, the loser this time will not concede to avoid ugliness.
Nike Mendenhall of Symmes Township, co-president of the League of Women Voters of the Cincinnati Area, said, "One of the things I pray for is that it's not close. If it's close, we're probably going to be seeing a lot of court cases. ... It's interesting times we live in."
To understand the level of fear and distrust emerging among voters in this year's presidential elections, listen to this story making the rounds among Republicans in Dona Ana County in southern New Mexico:
Minutes before the polls close on Election Day, the rumor goes, an untold number of trucks will pull into the parking lot of dozens of local precincts along the U.S.-Mexico border. The trucks will be filled with mysterious Mexican men who have been paid by Democratic operatives to cast illegal ballots. The names of eligible voters will be written on the palms of their hands. They will vote and then disappear without a trace.
The woman who related the rumor, Dona Ana County's Bush-Cheney campaign chairwoman Ceil Levatino, acknowledges that she has no evidence to support the allegations. But she said she has no reason to doubt Democrats might dream up such a scheme, especially since New Mexico law requires only first-time voters to produce identification at the polls.
"We can't ask for identification. We might intimidate them. We might disenfranchise them. We might scare someone away from the poll," Levatino said sarcastically.
Matt Farrauto, a Kerry campaign spokesman in New Mexico, said state Republicans are "crying wolf" by making baseless claims of voter fraud instead of focusing on issues that matter to voters.
"They are cultivating a climate of fear and hate, and crossing their fingers that a frivolous post-Election Day legal challenge will change the outcome they already know won't be in their favor," he said.
In Bond Hill last weekend, two members of the Congressional Black Caucus and actor Don Cheadle rallied Election Day volunteers for the Kerry campaign. They complained about what they said were Republican efforts to make it more difficult to vote by throwing out ballots cast in the wrong precinct.
Then, 74-year-old Ann Berry took to the floor and asked, "How come all of the sudden these young brothers are getting arrested before Election Day?"
The answer from Rep. Gregory Meeks gave no hint that he thought the premise of the question might be misguided. He noted that African-Americans trying to vote were subjected to fire hoses and police dogs in the 1960s, and said, "We can't be intimidated."
Meeks, a senior adviser to the Kerry campaign who recently served as an election monitor in Venezuela, has expressed more confidence in the integrity of the election there than the 2004 presidential contest here.
"These Republicans, the president - they talk about bringing democracy abroad," he said. "They're stopping democracy here in America, stopping people from voting. What bigger hypocrites can they be?"
The paranoia is hardly surprising in an age when best-sellers such as The Da Vinci Code, documentaries such as Fahrenheit 9/11 and TV shows such as The X Files reinforce the idea that a shadowy group is running things, arranging the world to their advantage.
"There is constant bombardment that what is really important in the world is what we don't know about," said Robert Robins, author of the 1997 book Political Paranoia: the Psychopolitics of Hatred.
Much of the paranoia in Ohio centers on Blackwell, who also served as a Bush delegate to the Republican National Convention and is one of dozens of honorary co-chairs of the Bush campaign in Ohio.
Last month, he promulgated a directive that required all voter-registration forms to be on a certain weight paper. He rescinded the directive after Democrats pointed out that even his own forms didn't meet the requirement.
In Loveland, Blackwell again made headlines when he said he'd rather go to jail than be forced by a federal judge to rewrite his directive on provisional ballots by out-of-precinct voters. Blackwell wants to require voters to cast ballots only in the precincts where they live - a position later upheld by a federal appeals court.
Blackwell dismissed as "ridiculous'' charges that he's tilted the election. There will be mistakes among the 45,000 election workers, he said, but no conspiracies.
"You brace yourself for a hiccup here or a hiccup there. What you manage against is a systemic choking of the system," he said. "We're in good shape to prevent that sort of systemic choking. On balance, we're going to get this right.''
If you're paranoid, you're not alone
Examples of election paranoia:
North Canton, Ohio-based Diebold, which makes voting machines, has been accused of rigging machines for President Bush, partly because its CEO, Walden O'Dell, had said he would help win Ohio for Bush. "The president has deployed his operatives to rig the outcome on Nov. 2," wrote David Sirota of the Center for American Progress this week in an item about Diebold. Nonsense, responds Diebold, whose 65,000 machines won't even be used in Ohio this year. "As far as Mr. O'Dell, he was regretful" about his comments, said company spokesman David Bear. "He quite honestly, naively, never ever conceived that anyone would confuse his personal beliefs with his business. One would never influence the other." He has since barred any workers in Diebold's elections division from partisan activities.
Ohioans on both sides complain that people - sometimes in masks - are stealing or knocking down campaign signs. In Minnesota, where Bush and Sen. John Kerry supporters hurl accusations about lawn sign vandalism back and forth all day, one Kerry backer printed up his own signs that read, "They stole the last election, and now they stole my Kerry-Edwards sign. Vote Nov. 2."
South Dakota Democrats, upset about GOP absentee-ballot requests that were illegally notarized, point out that the operatives responsible moved on to Ohio after they left South Dakota. Democrats wonder whether similar scandals are about to hit Ohio.
The Ohio Republican Party took out full-page ads in Ohio papers this month saying "Stop Election Fraud. The integrity of Ohio's election is at stake." It cited examples of forged voter registration signatures, fictitious names and convicted felons knocking on doors.
The liberal People for the American Way said this year's Election Protection program is the largest voter protection effort since the Freedom Summer effort to register and protect black voters in the South in 1964. The group identified five states - Ohio, Nevada, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida - where it will concentrate its efforts.
There are even conspiracies about the conspiracies. The conservative Free Congress Foundation suggested the Democrats weren't just expecting trouble in Ohio - they were "planning panic" to undermine Bush's re-election.
She described that strategy as, "Rush at the last minute huge numbers of people to register as voters; challenge those the other side is registering; condemn the registration process; denounce poll clerks, judges and other (often volunteer) personnel; predict disaster, fraud, irregularity," wrote foundation president Marion Edwyn Harrison.
Don't panic if you are registered to vote but your name is not on the list. Get help from a poll worker to make sure your vote is counted. You might be directed to another polling place or given a provisional ballot.
Bring your I.D. Bring your driver's license, or a paycheck, utility bill or government document that includes your name and street address.
Read what's on the wall. Look at the signs at the polling place for directions on how to use the voting machines, a list of your voting rights and instructions for filing a complaint if your rights have been violated.
Poll workers are there to help. They'll show you how to work the machines and give you a provisional ballot if you need one. If you're at the wrong polling place, they should tell you how to get to the right one.
If you feel your rights have been violated, you can file a complaint with your state election officials. Every polling place must be able to provide contact information about where you can file the complaint.
If you experience problems, call 1-866-OUR-VOTE. That's the hot line being operated by the Election Protection Coalition, which is composed of many organizations including the League of Women Voters. You can also call 1-866-747-1471. That's the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
Source: League of Women Voters, U.S. Election Assistance Commission