In Maricopa County, home of more than half of Arizona’s voters, material reminding Spanish-language speakers to vote lists Election Day as Nov. 8, two days after the polls close. In Florida, the Division of Elections is investigating letters sent to voters in 24 counties that say recipients have been flagged as possible noncitizens and are therefore ineligible to vote. In Wisconsin, billboards warn of jail time for voter fraud. And voters in several swing states have reported receiving calls telling them they can vote by phone instead of at the ballot box.
Welcome to the unseemly underside of politics. While President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney work to mobilize as much of their base as possible, some operatives are working behind the scenes to dissuade the other side’s voters from casting ballots.
In other cases, simple mistakes in local elections offices threaten to disenfranchise at least a handful of voters. In a close-fought election likely to come down to just a few states, any problem at the polls will cause the losing side to scream bloody murder.
Both the Obama and Romney camps claim they are confident they’ll win by sufficient margins. But privately, each side is preparing armies of lawyers and warning staff to be ready to fly to a political hot spot at a moment’s notice on Election Night.
“What we’re preparing for now is the efforts on the ground, and we will, as we’ve had in the past, have thousands of lawyers working at polling places throughout the country,” said Will Crossley, a Democratic National Committee spokesman. “This program that we have is bigger than we’ve had in a long time.”
“We have all the resources and infrastructure we need for any potential dispute or recount,” said one Romney aide. Because of a three-decade old court agreement, the Republican National Committee is not allowed to send lawyers into the field. Instead, the Republican National Lawyers Association, headed by longtime GOP activists David Norcross and Cleta Mitchell, organize the party’s volunteer legal efforts.
While there’s no evidence that either the official party organizations or the two presidential campaigns are involved in the shadiest efforts, operatives on both sides are engaged in underhanded, sometimes even illegal, tactics. The letters in Florida targeted Republican voters. The billboards in Wisconsin are in prominent African-American neighborhoods, where huge numbers of Democratic voters live.
In some states, both sides are working the referees by warning of dirty tricks that might happen before they actually do. Democrats have pointed out that a private equity firm run by Romney’s son, Tagg, is an investor in the parent company of a firm that makes Ohio voting machines. And Republican secretaries of state in Iowa, Colorado, and Florida have undertaken investigations into supposed Democratic voter fraud, although they’ve turned up only a small handful of ineligible voters who cast ballots.
In a more aboveboard realm, Democrats and Republicans have engaged in decades-long battles over voting rights. Democratic legislatures expanded early voting hours and access to absentee ballots, while Republicans have fought to ensure military voters get their ballots in enough time to vote. Over the last two years, Republicans have renewed a push to require voters to show identification when they get their ballots, while legislatures in states like Ohio and Florida have sought to curtail some early-voting hours.
Simple errors at local elections offices, whether poorly designed ballots in Palm Beach County in 2000 or mislabeled elections materials like those in Maricopa County today, can give both parties a chance to claim voting irregularities. Long lines at early voting locations in Iowa and elsewhere have already caused some grumbling, but it’s just a preview of the strain that will be put on election workers when they deal with the tens of millions of voters who turn up on Nov. 6.
Software bugs never fail to spur calls of election-fixing. On Wednesday, reports that a voting machine in Greensboro, N.C. was registering Romney votes as Obama votes landed on the Drudge Report website.
Both sides are ready for human errors, too. “Our belief is that local registrars, local supervisors of elections, the last thing they want is a catastrophe on Election Day with cameras outside their offices. So they have an interest in making the elections run smoothly,” the DNC's Crossley said. “That way more people get to vote.”