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Harvard Law group to send students to ensure poll access

By Associated Press
Tuesday, March 16, 2004

BOSTON - Chaotic vote counting is the lasting image of the 2000 election, but a group of Harvard Law School students say the millions of voters who were wrongly denied ballots was a bigger story. This year, they're trying to prevent it from happening again.

      The new group, called Just Democracy, announced its plans Tuesday to dispatch at least 1,000 students from law schools across the country to cut through confusion at the polls.

      As many as 4 million eligible voters were denied ballots in 2000 because of errors in voter registration databases or polling place problems, according to a study by the Caltech-MIT voting technology project.

      Just Democracy's leaders say a bogged-down bureaucracy or ignorance of the law, not malice, explains the majority of the problems, and those problems can be fixed, said Harvard law student Becca O'Brien, the groups's founder.

      The lost votes particularly inflame Democrats, who were on the losing end of the Supreme Court's ruling that gave Florida and the general election to President Bush. But O'Brien said Just Democracy is a nonpartisan group committed only to maximum voter participation.

      It plans to send volunteers to every state with a law school (which excludes only Alaska), not just battleground states, O'Brien said. Its volunteers and board of election law experts will also be a mix of Democrats, Republicans and independents.

      ``We're not in this for the presidential election,'' O'Brien said. ``We're in this because we believe every vote should count.''

      O'Brien got the idea at a Harvard Law School forum on voter participation that painted a bleak picture. When someone asked what could be done, a panel member brought up the idea of law student observers.

      ``I couldn't shake my memory of that comment,'' said O'Brien, a second year student. ``It was such a concrete answer. ... I kept thinking, 'That's feasible.'''

      Poll workers aren't trained in election law and may make mistakes, but a law student can spot common errors before a voter is sent away for good, said Micah May, a member of Just Democracy. For instance, a simple change of address to a new voting precinct has shut people out of voting, but shouldn't, May said. Other examples are improper requirements that voters present a drivers license and polls that opened late or closed early.

      Kay Stimson, spokeswoman for the National Association of Secretaries of State, said the federal Help America Vote Act of 2002 provides provisional ballots to anyone who thinks they've been wrongly denied a ballot. The voter casts a ballot that can become official if authorities realize they made a mistake.

      ``No one should be turned away,'' she said. Stimson added that observers would likely be welcomed as insurance that things go smoothly.

      Ground rules for polling places vary by state, and sometimes by county, so access could vary. In Massachusetts, for instance, observers are permitted to take notes by the polling table where voters check in, but can't speak to voters until they're outside the polling area, said Brian McNiff, a spokesman for Secretary of State William Galvin.

      O'Brien said each Just Democracy chapter will study local election law and work with state election officials before November. About 10 Just Democracy state chapters have been set up so far, with another 20 in the works, O'Brien said. She hopes to have chapters in all the states plus Puerto Rico by next month.

      May said he doesn't anticipate problems attracting volunteers - law students are naturally interested in making the system work. The lost votes are frustrating, he said, but the alienation that follows can profoundly affect future voter participation.

      ``I'd be shocked if they're not vastly less likely to come back,'' May said.