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Protecting the vote 

High turnout means extra preparations

With Election Day less than six weeks away, election workers in Mecklenburg County are preparing for what could be record turnout fueled by the hotly contested presidential race.

Nearly 60,000 people have registered to vote in Mecklenburg County this year alone -- about an 11 percent increase in the electorate from November 2007 -- and county Elections Director Michael Dickerson expects to add as many as 20,000 more voters to the rolls by Election Day. Turnout has been on the rise as well -- nearly 2.1 million people in North Carolina voted in the May 6 primary, setting a record turnout of 37 percent. It's also the first presidential election in which the state will have same-day registration during early voting.

What does this mean? Well, higher turnout could mean more problems at the polls. Some advocacy groups are already reporting voting-related disputes around the country. Massive efforts like Election Protection, a coalition of more than 100 advocacy groups, have been launched to answer questions, debunk rumors, and thwart attempts to keep people away from the polls. The coalition has launched a hotline -- 866-OUR-VOTE -- for voters and has enlisted the aid of more than 10,000 legal volunteers who will be on call.

"For certain areas and for certain populations, voting is increasingly daunting," Angela Ciccolo, interim general counsel for the NAACP, said last week in a conference call. "It's not the way it should be, and with the help of this coalition, that's not the way it will be this year."

Fortunately, elections watchers say, North Carolina is relatively well-prepared, and its elections are better-administered than some other states. "We do, in general, have a strong election administration and a good system," said Bob Hall, executive director of Democracy North Carolina.

Many N.C. counties, including Mecklenburg, use touch-screen iVotronic machines, which concerns people who worry about vote tampering and errors linked to electronic ballots. Elections officials said safeguards are in place to ensure vote integrity.

In 2004, UniLect Patriot touch-screen machines in Carteret County stopped recording votes because of a programming error, resulting in the loss of more than 4,400 votes. After that mishap, state officials required ballots be paper-verified. "That's an important safety feature that North Carolina has that a lot of states don't have," Hall said.

In Mecklenburg, Dickerson said, every precinct's ballot is tested before it goes out. The iVotronic machines record votes on three internal memories and one removable card. If the memory is corrupted, the machine shuts down immediately. After the election, an audit is performed to make sure electronically recorded memories match. His office then performs a hand-eye paper recount of randomly selected precincts. "We feel very confident with these machines," he said.

On the left side of the machines, voters can see their choices recorded on a strip of paper that resemble a grocery receipt. "One really crucial thing is to have poll workers instruct each voter to check the printout," said Pamela Smith, president of Verified Voting, which prefers for optical-scan paper ballots. "It's the only thing that the voter gets a chance to look at. ... In some places there have been problems with paper jams."

Dickerson said he hasn't heard any rumors yet of local trickery or misinformation but each election usually sees some falsehoods spread -- for instance, that one party is supposed to vote on a day other than Tuesday. Hall said Democracy North Carolina staffers have already heard that some people in other states have been told -- wrongly -- that they can't vote if they have a traffic ticket.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that elections officials in Montgomery County, Va., home of Virginia Tech, last month released a statement that said college students who register to vote there may not be able to be claimed as dependents on their parents' income-tax returns -- a statement that the IRS said was incorrect. And voter advocacy groups are fighting attempts in Wisconsin to challenge votes cast by people on foreclosure lists. The Herald-Sun of Durham reported last week that the Durham County Board of Election was checking about 80 voter registration forms submitted by the liberal organizing group ACORN for possible fraud.

Elections experts are urging people to take advantage of early voting, when lines aren't likely to be as long. In 2004, about 100,000 people voted early at about a dozen sites. Dickerson said he's hoping at least 150,000 people -- and maybe as many as 200,000 people -- head to the polls early. The county will have 20 early voting sites open between Oct. 16 and Nov. 1. Last week, the Board of Elections already had received more than 6,000 requests for absentee paper ballots.

With the expectation of increased turnout, the office has beefed up staff and supplies. Nearly 2,000 voting machines will be at Mecklenburg precincts on Nov. 4. "We're doing a lot of work to get ready for this so we don't have problems," Dickerson said.

Important dates

Oct. 10: Registration deadline to vote on Nov. 4

Oct. 16 through Nov. 1: One-stop voter registration and early voting

Oct. 28: Last day to vote absentee by mail

Nov. 3: Absentee ballots must be received; last day to request absentee ballots because of sickness or disability

Nov. 4: Election Day

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