Observers predict troubled U.S. election

Reuters

Thu 30 September, 2004 02:51

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - International observers have predicted problems in the U.S. presidential election with new voting machines and warn the result could again be delayed, four years after a disputed count determined who won the White House.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe observers issued a report this week on preparations for the November 2 vote, after a visit earlier this month.

The group highlighted concerns over the machines, voter eligibility rules and allegations of intimidation aimed at lowering the turnout of ethnic minorities.

"In general, the nationwide replacement of voting equipment, inspired by the disputes witnessed during the 2000 elections, primarily in Florida, may potentially become a source of even greater controversy during the forthcoming elections," the group said in the report which was posted to its Web site (www.osce.org/odihr).

Many new machines do not produce a paper ballot that would be needed in the case of a manual recount, the observers, who we re invited by the Bush administration, said.

Uneven application of rules on provisional ballots -- which can be cast even when the voter's eligibility is unclear -- "may cause post-election disputes and litigation, potentially delaying the announcement of final results," they added.

In 2000, voters split down the middle in Florida, which was ridiculed worldwide as it spawned court battles over whether and how to count imperfect ballots. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually ruled George W. Bush won the state by 537 votes, and the decision gave him the presidency.

With polls showing this year's election between Bush and Democrat Senator John Kerry could also be tight in several states, civil rights groups have raised concern that voters could be disenfranchised and the 2000 debacle could be repeated.

The OSCE, which groups 55 countries, will publish an unprecedented report of its observations after November 2, although it will not judge the overall fairness of the vote.

"We are very proud of our election system ... we are happy to open up our elections for people to observe, comment, offer advice maybe even learn something," a senior State Department official said.

While Democrats have welcomed the OSCE mission, Republicans have been quick to note the limitations on the group, which did not make recommendations to help avoid election-day problems.

"This type of report is not binding. You can criticise and comment all you like but the constitutional authority over our elections rests with Congress and the states," Laura Zuckerman, spokeswoman for Rep. Steve Buyer, an Indiana Republican who sponsored an amendment this year to ban federal officials using money to invite U.N. observers.