Early voting, other factors could put election outcome into the hands of lawyers

Posted: Oct 26, 2004 12:00 AM

 This is it -- the final stretch in which George W. Bush and John Kerry fight for every vote in every battleground state. As expected, political pundits are all now stressing the role voter turnout will play next Tuesday. But conventional wisdom about turnout methods and levels has been turned upside down with several states allowing early voting. And already, the system designed to allow greater voter participation is having unintended consequences.

 Potentially disastrous consequences.

 Consider the case of the battleground of battleground states, Florida. Our latest InsiderAdvantage tracking poll in that state has shown Bush and Kerry statistically tied throughout last weekend and into early this week with roughly 46 percent. And with early voting having commenced there, we are actually polling a vote that already is underway. Democratic operatives have cleverly found ways to potentially game the early-vote system, thus potentially rendering polls and pundits helpless and making attorneys in Lear jets a likely necessity.

 For example, each and every day since early voting began, a convoy of vans sporting Kerry-Edwards signs has rolled up to a critical early-voting location in West Palm Beach. Eyewitnesses have reported seeing the vehicles arrive around 11:00 each morning, unloading scores of primarily senior voters -- inclined to vote Democrat -- who then form long lines around the building.

 Those who venture out during their lunch break -- often younger voters more inclined to support President Bush -- say they see these repeated lines each day and realize they simply don't have time on their lunch break to make it through the process in time to get back to work. Hence, they aren't voting early.

 Is there anything wrong or illegal in the Democrats' move? No, it's just smart strategy. But does this system place other voters at a potential disadvantage? Certainly. For one thing, Democratic organizers know right where to go in order to coordinate such mobile voter-delivery efforts. Retirement centers and certain condominiums are high Democrat-leaning locations where rounding up like-minded voters and hauling them to the polls is easily accomplished.

 Republican voters, many of whom live on suburban streets or are working in far-flung locations during the day, are not so easily coalesced. Imagine a bus coming into a suburban neighborhood offering a ride to early-voting locations. I guess some of that might be going on, but suburbanites are usually less likely to pile on a political bus to go vote in the middle of the day.

 Then there are the less acceptable approaches to early voting. By Monday of this week, there were a multitude of reports of voters being verbally harassed at early-voting locations in various areas of the Sunshine State. Most of the accusations centered on Democratic supporters attempting to verbally intimidate perceived Bush supporters. And if that weren't enough, consider one small community in South Florida that last week reportedly declared a "state of emergency," the reason for which was unclear, but the result being the use of government resources to shuttle primarily Democrat-leaning condo residents to early-voting sites.

 Of course, with the polls just as tight as we predicted months ago, the early-voting wrinkle simply adds another ring to the circus that was fully expected in this year's presidential contest, particularly under the big top of big tops, Florida. Not only does the growing chaos in this most critical swing state set the stage for new and more intricate potential lawsuits. It may well render polling in the last days -- and certainly those already questionable exit polls on Election Day -- almost useless.

 No current poll of the presidential contest is taking into account the concept that some who are surveyed in these early-voting states may have already voted or may vote before Nov. 2. Thus, the concept of "undecided voters" becomes extremely confusing. And as for those exit polls, with such chaos reigning at early-voting locations, it is inconceivable that any polling of early voters could possibly be weighted or scientifically merged with surveys of those exiting the polls next Tuesday to any degree of accuracy. That means whatever we hear about exit-poll projections in states like Florida on Election Night will have to be taken not with just a grain, but with a pound, of salt.

 We are swiftly entering the point in a national election in which the ads, television reports, newspaper articles and candidates themselves blend into one big blur. Sept. 11, an inherited recession and the tough realities of war combine to give Kerry a shot at victory. For Bush, the hope is that when voters really enter the sanctity of the voting booth, they will find it hard to turn out a man who led them through such unparalleled tough times.

 And so it is in the hands of the voters and the vote counters. And with such antics as we are already seeing in Florida, this race may well end up in the hands, once again, of the lawyers. Oh, joy.