'Dirty tricks' brigade steps up campaign as election nears

Sabotage and dirty tricks aimed at stopping people voting increased today in the last few hours before the US elections.

Sabotage and dirty tricks aimed at stopping people voting increased today in the last few hours before the US elections.

The onslaught included confusing emails, disturbing phone calls and insinuating leaflets left on doorsteps during the night.

But this time, amid the intimidation or misinformation, some of the deceit has a decidedly racist bent.

Complaints have surfaced in predominantly African-American neighbourhoods of Philadelphia where leaflets have circulated, warning voters they could be arrested at the polls if they had unpaid parking tickets or if they had criminal convictions.

Over the weekend in Virginia, bogus leaflets with an authentic-looking seal said fears of high voter turnout had prompted election officials to hold two elections – one on Tuesday for Republicans, the correct day, and another on Wednesday for Democrats, which would be after election.

In New Mexico, two Hispanic women filed a lawsuit last week claiming they were harassed by a private investigator working for a Republican lawyer who came to their homes and threatened to call immigration authorities, even though they are US citizens.

“He was questioning her status, saying that he needed to see her papers and documents to show that she was a US citizen and was a legitimate voter,” said Guadalupe Bojorquez, speaking on behalf of her mother, Dora Escobedo, a 67-year-old Albuquerque resident who speaks only Spanish. “He totally, totally scared the heck out of her.”

In Pennsylvania, emails appeared linking Barack Obama to the Holocaust. “Jewish Americans cannot afford to make the wrong decision on Tuesday, Nov. 4,” said the electronic message, paid for by an entity calling itself the Republican Federal Committee. “Many of our ancestors ignored the warning signs in the 1930s and 1940s and made a tragic mistake.”

Laughlin McDonald, who leads the American Civil Liberties Union’s Voting Rights Project, said he has never seen “an election where there was more interest and more voter turnout, and more efforts to suppress registration and turnout. And that has a real impact on minorities.”

The Obama campaign and civil rights advocacy groups have signed up millions of new voters for this presidential race. In Ohio alone, some 600,000 have submitted new voter registration cards.

Across the country, many of these first-time voters are young and strong Obama supporters. Many are also black and Hispanic.

Activist groups say it is this fresh crop of ballot-minded citizens that makes some Republicans very nervous. And they say they expect the dirty tricks to get dirtier in the final hours, especially in battleground states like Pennsylvania, Virginia and New Mexico.

Other reports of intimidation efforts in the hotly contested state of Pennsylvania include leaflets taped to picnic benches at Drexel University, warning students that police would be at the polls on Tuesday to arrest would-be voters with prior criminal offences.

Such tactics are common, and are often impossible to trace. Robo-calls, in which automated phone messages are sent over and over, are very hard to trace to their source, say voting advocates. Emails fall into the same category.

In Nevada, for example, Latino voters said they had received calls from people describing themselves as Obama volunteers, urging them to cast their ballot over the phone.

The Voting Rights Act makes it a crime to mislead and intimidate voters but finding out who is responsible can be impossible.

Trying to mislead voters is nothing new.

“We see this every year,” said Jonah Goldman of the advocacy group Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “It all happens around this time when there’s too much other stuff going on in the campaigns, and it doesn’t get investigated.”

In 2006, automated phone calls in the final days leading to the federal election wrongly warned voters they would not be allowed to vote without a photo identity. In Colorado and Virginia, people reported receiving calls that told them their registrations had expired and they would be arrested if they showed up to vote.

The White House contest of 2004 was marked by similar deceptions. In Milwaukee, leaflets went up advising people “if you’ve already voted in any election this year, you can’t vote in the presidential election.”

Email assaults have become increasingly popular this year, keeping pace with the proliferation of blogging and Mr Obama’s massive online campaign efforts, according to voting activists.

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