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Originally published October 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 29, 2008 at 3:32 PM

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Election Day rumors could disenfranchise voters

Have you heard the one about Tuesday's election being extended into Wednesday? Don't believe it. Rumors are flying concerning what a simple trip to the polls next week might mean. The rumors have potentially serious consequences. Some voters might stay home or might show up to vote at the wrong time.

The State (Columbia, S.C

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Have you heard the one about Tuesday's election being extended into Wednesday because so many people are expected to vote?

If you have, don't believe it.

It's a big fat lie.

So don't show up to the polls on Wednesday expecting to cast a ballot.

Less than a week until Election Day, rumors are wild — and flying around like dust — concerning what a simple trip to the polls next week might mean for South Carolina voters — or voters in any state, for that matter.

The rumors, election watchers say, have potentially serious consequences. Some voters might stay home or might show up to vote at the wrong time. Other voters might worry needlessly about the election's integrity being harmed.

Depending on your point of view, the rumors are simple misinformation that gains a life of its own. Or, they are something far more malicious. Like the rumor that some voters who show up will face arrest on Election Day.

"Intimidation — that's really what it boils down to," said Lonnie Randolph, president of the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP, describing the kinds of complaints he said his office has fielded from voters. The NAACP is part of a coalition of organizations around the state that works together each election to help dispel rumors that could lead to voter disenfranchisement.

Radio talk show hosts in Greenville, Columbia, and Charleston, S.C., say their phone lines have lit up recently, too, with people calling in to report and discuss Election Day rumors.

"It's been wild out there," said James Felder, president and CEO of the South Carolina Voter Education Project, who has worked in South Carolina elections for 41 years.

Felder, who hosts the L.R. Byrd Talk Show for half-an-hour each Monday, said rumors have ranged from reports that anyone owing a traffic ticket would not be allowed to vote to reports that those whose family members have been arrested also would be turned away.

"I know better," Felder said, "So I knock (the rumors) down right there."

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Many of the questions he fields have swirled around absentee balloting, Felder said, with callers questioning whether such ballots would actually count. They do and they're not counted until Election Day.

State Rep. David Mack, D-Charleston, who hosts the three-hour, public affairs talk show — "The David Mack Show" — five days a week, said the number of calls and e-mails the show received about rumors prompted him to air election-themed shows with guests who can put the rumors to rest.

Callers' reports range from fake registration material in the mail, to calls that direct residents to incorrect voting precincts on Election Day.

"When those calls come in, we have been trying to put a barrage of information out there," Mack said. "We're seeing stuff we've never seen before."

Cynthia Hardy, host of Columbia's "Onpoint! with Cynthia Hardy" said her Sunday show on FM 101.3 was swamped last weekend with calls about Election Day rumors. This Sunday, she will be on the air an extra hour, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on WWDM, to resume discussions.

Rumors that certain voters will be arrested at polling sites are not unusual in election cycles, and have cropped up on each of these three shows.

"No such thing ever has happened, to my knowledge in the 12 years I've been here, and it's not gonna happen," said Richland County, S.C., Sheriff Leon Lott.

Another rumor floating around the state, driven mostly by national politics, is that the besieged voter registration group ACORN has been operating in South Carolina, though state election officials say that rumor is false.

The group has been accused of fraudulently registering thousands of voters across the nation. Some ACORN workers have been arrested.

Bruce Ransom, a Clemson University political science professor, said threats of arrests and the mere suggestion of voter fraud amounts to voter intimidation and suppression.

That, he said, is because such threats are aimed at ACORN registrations, which are by primarily low-income, elderly and minority voters.

"It's not a matter of saying, 'I favor fraud, or I don't respect the integrity of the process,' " Ransom said. "Their life experiences are such that they fear voting will be an opportunity to have an unpleasant experience with a public official."

In a high-turnout election year, there is plenty of suspicion to go around.

Elaine Chandler, a Florence, S.C., retiree, said she went to cast an absentee ballot Monday. She waited 1 hour, 45 minutes, but had the opportunity to sit while she waited.

Chandler said she returned to the county election commission Tuesday and saw lines of elderly voters waiting up to two hours to vote — without a place to sit.

"It's one of two things," Chandler said. "Voter suppression or retaliation for the complaints they heard Monday (about the wait)."

Chris Whitmire, spokesman for the State Election Commission, said it is trying to dispel the rumors.

"We see all kinds of misinformation going around before every election," Whitmire said. "It could be just misinformation. Hopefully, it's not deliberate."

— — —

3 MYTHS DISPELLED

Putting to rest some common election rumors:

Myth: Absentee votes don't count unless the election is really close.

TRUTH: Every vote counts. Absentee ballots are usually the first votes counted on Election Day.

Myth: If you show up to the polls wearing a T-shirt supporting your candidate, you won't be allowed to vote.

TRUTH: It is true that the display of campaign material is not allowed within 200 feet of any entrance to a polling place on Election Day. Voters with campaign material will not be turned away, but will be asked to remove the material, cover the material, or otherwise cause the material not to be seen before being allowed to vote.

Myth: Straight-party voting does not apply to president. You must vote for president first before voting straight party, or your vote for president won't count.

TRUTH: Straight-party voting applies to president and all other partisan offices on the ballot.

Source: South Carolina Election Commission

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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