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CHALLENGES LIKELY ON VOTE RESULT

This year's presidential election could very well end up like the last one -- in court.

Democrats know that some of their loyalists were denied the right to vote in 2000 and worry that it will happen again.

And Republicans are not at all happy about some of the legions of newly registered voters across the land -- including Dick Tracy, Jive Turkey and Mary Poppins, all in Ohio.

So both sides are prepared to fight. Each will send thousands of lawyers to polling places Tuesday, with Democrats claiming to fight for voter rights, and Republicans saying they are combating fraud. The result could be another Election Night without end and another presidency decided in court.

Recount battles and court challenges are possible not only in Florida, but also in Ohio and a handful of other tightly contested states. Lawyers from both parties and independent election experts said that means the prolonged 2000 election might be about to repeat itself.

"Everything depends entirely on whether and where the race is close," said Doug Chapin, executive director of electionline.org, a nonpartisan group that studies electoral reform. "If one of the parties decides to litigate till the last lawyer dies, it could take weeks."

Among the two parties and such groups as the League of Women Voters and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, 25,000 lawyers and other poll-watchers will be at polling places in Ohio, Florida and other swing states.

"We saw in 2000 what happens when elections go bad," said David Sullivan, a Lackawanna native who now directs the Democratic Party's Voter Protection Program in Ohio. "That's what we're trying to prevent here, to work with election officials to prevent problems and protect the right to vote."

Problems may be hard to prevent, particularly in Ohio, which many experts say could be this year's Florida. It has the same ingredients, including a deeply divided electorate, widespread use of punch-card ballots and a Republican Party that, Democrats say, is actively trying to suppress the vote.

So far, the GOP has gone to court to challenge the registrations of 35,000 new voters, but has lost efforts to block them en masse. That means party representatives could challenge voters at the polls.

Benjamin Ginsberg, former counsel to the Bush-Cheney campaign, said the party had good reason to challenge new registrations. Left-leaning activist groups offered "bounties" to employees who signed up new voters, leading to the registration of Dick Tracy, Daffy Duck, Jive Turkey and Mary Poppins.

"My goodness, Mary Poppins isn't even a citizen of the United States," Ginsberg said.

Democrats counter by saying no evidence indicates widespread fraud, in Ohio or elsewhere -- but only a Republican effort to intimidate voters, especially minorities.

"Every day I wake up and say things in Florida and Ohio can't be any worse than they already were, but every day, they're worse," said Ralph Neas, president of the liberal People for the American Way.

In Florida, thousands of absentee ballots appear to have vanished in heavily Democratic Broward County. Many also fear that new electronic voting machines will cause confusion.

Problems have cropped up in other states, too. In Nevada, a company hired by Republicans to register voters is fighting off accusations that it threw away registrations of those who signed up as Democrats. In Missouri, which continues to use punch-card ballots, numerous lawsuits already have been filed over early voting, absentee ballots and other issues.

All across the country, election officials also will have to cope with the Help America Vote Act. Passed by Congress in 2002 in hopes of preventing another Florida debacle, the new law actually could end up prolonging the election because it calls for anyone who wants to vote to be able to cast a "provisional" ballot. Such ballots would be counted only if the voters are qualified to be registered.

Election experts foresee tens of thousands of provisional ballots cast in many states. And if the margin between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry is narrower than the number of provisional ballots cast, the winner of the state might not be determined until all the issues surrounding the provisional ballots are resolved.

"Provisional ballots will be to 2004 what hanging chads were to 2000," Neas predicted.

Those reforms, combined with millions of newly registered voters, could produce huge lines at polling places. And with so many lawyers watching every move, "any mistake that gets made is going to get magnified," said Paul DeGregorio, a member of the newly created federal Election Assistance Commission.

That means determining the winner might take a while, DeGregorio said -- but not that the electoral system is broken.

"Can people trust the results of the election? I believe they can," he said. "I've worked with election officials since 1985, and these are good people. They're working triple-time to get the job done."

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com.

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