By E.J. Kessler

Published October 22, 2004, issue of October 22, 2004.
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In Las Vegas, the FBI is investigating reports that a Republican-backed voter outreach firm destroyed forms it had collected from voters who had registered as Democrats.

In York, Pa., vandals repeatedly have sprayed anti-Bush and pro-Kerry slogans on the “Republican Victory” headquarters.

In Duval County, Fla., civil rights organizations complained that early-voting sites were placed far from black neighborhoods, discouraging their voters.

In Ohio, the Republican secretary of state is being sued for promulgating rules that critics say will restrict the ballot access of new voters, such as requiring registrations to be on a certain paper stock, and disqualifying provisional votes cast in the wrong precinct.

As the nation gears up to vote on November 2, representatives of each major party are insisting that the other side is engaging in attempts to intimidate and suppress the votes of its partisans. With intense polarization evident in what both sides say is a very close presidential election, hundreds of thousands of political activists of all stripes are gearing up to be poll watchers or to work on get-out-the-vote efforts to counter the alleged vote-suppression. That activism is especially evident in the Jewish community: Thousands of Jews are participating in the campaigns of both parties and in the nonpartisan voter protection efforts of good-government groups.

The Democratic National Committee’s chief field operative, Michael Whouley, said that the Democrats’ coordinated campaign is sending 10,000 lawyers into the field and that “the number is growing by the day.” The Republicans, who are relying on state political parties to recruit lawyers, expect to send a similar force.

New York State alone is sending more than 900 Democratic lawyers to observe the election in swing states, according to Henry Berger, 59, the general counsel for the Kerry-Edwards campaign in the Empire State. The chairman of the New York State Young Republicans, Jason Weingartner, said he is dispatching 100 attorneys to swing states. A large proportion of both parties’ lawyers are Jewish, both men said.

“It’s a remarkable group,” Berger said. “Everyone from law students to senior partners in major law firms.” The Democratic New York attorneys will be heading to Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Louisiana, Arkansas and New Mexico. “A lot of people are going out after Shabbos,” Berger said. “They’ll be there for Sunday, Monday and Tuesday” of election week. Berger said he is being posted to Columbus, Ohio. “I’ll probably be working in a boiler room, answering phones and dealing with questions as they come in,” he said.

The head of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, Rabbi David Saperstein, said that in response to a number of inquiries, his group had sent information on nonpartisan electoral protection programs to thousands of its affiliates.

The poll watchers will encounter parties that already are at loggerheads. Listen, for example, to some voices from hotly contested swing state of Pennsylvania.

John Fee, communications director for the 2003 campaign of Philadelphia Mayor John Street, said that he expects the election there to include intimidation of minority voters.

“What they did [in 2003] was send voter suppression teams into African American neighborhoods,” Fee charged. “They were harassing people at the polls, challenging their right to vote. We had to get multiple injunctions against them…. We’ve seen their tactics before. We know what they are. We’ll handle them appropriately.”

The political director of the Republican State Committee of Pennsylvania, Josh Wilson, countered that “every election, the Democrats dust off voter intimidation.

“They’re big on that. They take offense when we want to ensure that elections operate in a fair manner…. I don’t see how making use of a statute-given right is intimidation.”

Wilson claimed that in the Keystone State, “there’s more intimidation of Republican poll watchers than there is intimidation of Democratic voters,” charging that union members had initiated violence against Bush-Cheney volunteers and that “Democrat operatives have brandished guns in Philadelphia.”

The Democratic National Committee has issued a manual for poll watchers, advising them to take “pre-emptive action” against voter intimidation by raising awareness of the problem.

Bush-Cheney campaign chairman Marc Racicot has taken some pre-emptive action of his own. In response to union protests at Bush-Cheney offices in several states that he said had “led to injuries, property damage, vandalism and voter intimidation,” he wrote to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney to urge him to “discontinue any coordinated protest efforts that result in damage to our facilities, or injury to people who may hold different political views than your members, but who share an equal right to be involved in the political process without suffering violence, intimidation and threats.”

Meanwhile, the chief counsel of the Bush-Cheney campaign, Tom Josefiak, is claiming that Democratic efforts to keep independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader off the ballot in Pennsylvania and elsewhere have delayed the mailing of ballots to American troops overseas, potentially disenfranchising them.

“It’s not just an isolated instance, it’s all over the country where these ballots are not getting to the troops in time and we’re concerned about that,” he said during a conference call with reporters.

In the poisoned climate, even the plans of some states to put extra security officers on the street to deal with any added threat of terror attacks is seen as a way of suppressing the vote of minorities.

“What they want to do is make clear that there will be law enforcement officials, agents from the FBI, on the street to intimidate voters from exercising their right to vote,” said a veteran Democratic strategist, speaking on condition of anonymity. “In urban races, it’s a classic Republican tactic. It’s directed at black voters, to raise questions in people’s minds whether they’ll be hassled.”

Jewish community relations professionals contacted by the Forward said they did not expect to hear about voter intimidation tactics aimed at Jews specifically, and so they had not mobilized for the possibility. Political operatives, however, warned that as a disproportionately elderly group, Jews are susceptible to voter suppression tactics that target seniors. Some examples of voter suppression that Jews might watch out for include late-night calls in which the caller, in hopes of angering them, reminds them to vote for a certain party or ticket. Another sneaky tactic aimed at seniors involves calls that attempt to befuddle them by reminding them to vote on Election Day, but naming the day after the election.

During the 2000 election in Florida, with its butterfly ballots and hanging chads, many elderly Jewish voters complained of being disenfranchised, having been confounded in voting their choice by poor ballot design. Democrats are adamant that won’t happen again. The chairman of the Broward County Democratic Party, Mitch Ceasar, said he will have 100 attorneys at the polls in his county alone.

Ceasar said that if there are voter intimidation or ballot problems: “We’ll deal with it on the scene. We’ve been blessed by a gigantic number of attorneys who are volunteering in droves. Nobody minds losing an election fair and square, but not when it’s done through a political and legal shell game.”

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