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Friday, October 29, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Danny Westneat / Times staff columnist
Don't let poll fears sway you

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On Election Day four years ago, Democratic canvassers herded college kids in Bellingham to the polls to vote.

Many students were not registered there. They stood in line for hours anyway to cast ballots that might not even count — so-called provisional votes to be scrutinized later and, if legitimate, tallied.

The voting sounded fishy, a relic of ward-style politics. It threatened to become a crisis when Democrat Maria Cantwell — buoyed by these provisional votes — beat incumbent Sen. Slade Gorton by less than a tenth of a percent.

"There was a real fear that people had voted twice, or had voted when they weren't eligible," remembers Peter Schalestock, an attorney for the state Republican Party.

But there was no crisis. Officials recounted every vote. Most of the provisional ballots were fine — they were cast by students registered elsewhere in the state who were as entitled to vote as you and me.

"Gorton's lawyers looked at this long and hard, and there was no evidence of fraudulent activity, no sign that the system was anything but sound," Schalestock said.

I recount this story now because we all need to chill out about the upcoming election.

Every day there are national headlines predicting Election Day chaos. Both sides stand accused of trying to steal the election, particularly in Florida and Ohio.

There haven't been any serious allegations in Washington state this year, yet the campaigns are acting like we're some sort of banana republic. Bush and Kerry have dispatched 600 lawyers to watchdog polling places and make sure the vote is not rigged.

There are eye-catching accounts of fraud around the country, from Democrats registering the dead to Republicans shredding voter registrations.

But longtime election watchers say such stories are hardy perennials. What's new is that both political parties are using the lingering mistrust from 2000 to whip their voters to the polls.
"I'm not sure actual voter fraud or intimidation is significantly on the rise, but suspicion is at an all-time high," said Doug Chapin, director of Electiononline, a nonpartisan group that analyzes U.S. elections. "The parties are trying to send a message that we're protecting your vote, and we won't let it be stolen by the other side."

The result is the most scrutinized election in U.S. history. That's fine to a point, but some legal experts predict the scrutiny — particularly lawyers trolling polling places — will create more problems than it solves.

Here, lawyers will be bored, mostly. They can enter polling places and talk to voters. But they are not allowed to challenge your right to vote, as in some other states.

Lawsuits over this election may be inevitable, but why obsess about it? Tell the lawyers to step aside. If the poll workers don't have you on the list, ask for a provisional ballot.

Most of all, don't believe the hype. As those college kids showed in 2000, nothing can stop a voter determined to be counted.

Reach Danny Westneat at 206-464-2086 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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