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WASHINGTON (PNJ)-- Forget dangling chads and butterfly ballots.

Florida's election, which officially began Saturday with early voting, could end up more befuddling and rancorous than the drawn-out contest in 2000 that decided the presidency.

The confusion is being stoked by several factors:

  • A 2011 state law that has reduced early voting days and made it more complicated for voters who moved from one county to another without updating their address.
  • Changes in state legislative and congressional boundaries mandated by a once-in-a-decade reconfiguration, based on population shifts, that has placed some voters in new districts.
  • A ballot that not only includes candidates for president, U.S. Senate, U.S. House, state Legislature and local offices, but also 11 amendments to the state constitution.
  • An army of observers trained by a tea party-affiliated organization that is on the lookout for voter fraud and other irregularities at polling sites on Nov. 6, Election Day.
  • A small but well-publicized wave of voter misinformation purported to be from local elections offices around the state. The tactics include phony but authentic-looking letters questioning voters' citizenship and calls improperly telling voters they can cast their ballots by phone.

Since the 2008 presidential election, a slew of states tightened ballot access to combat voter fraud. But experts say few have gone as far as Florida, the state that decided the presidency by 537 votes 12 years ago and could do so again this year. And civil rights groups point to studies that say confirmed instances of voter impersonation, which the laws targeted, are extremely rare.

The law, passed last year by the Republican-controlled Legislature and signed by GOP Gov. Rick Scott, reduced by nearly half the number of days for early voting, restricted the ability of third-party groups to register voters and required out-of-county voters to cast provisional ballots.

'Most confusing'

Barbara Arnwine, president of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, which is monitoring ballot access nationwide, calls this election "the most confusing voter environment" since 2000.

"It's confusing because of these bad laws that were passed. It's confusing because of all the bad actors who want to confuse people. And it's confusing because of this bad administration (of election procedures)," she said. "The good news is that there are more entities organized to protect the vote and to counteract all of this confusion."

The lawyers' group, a nonpartisan organization based in Washington, is deploying about 800 lawyers and other trained observers to assist voters in Florida, many in minority communities. The group has set up a national hotline (1-866-687-8683) voters can call from now until the polls close.

Organization officials are anticipating the eligibility of many voters could be challenged on Nov. 6 by groups that they say are looking to suppress the minority vote by disrupting the process. Long delays as a result of challenges could discourage voters who don't want to wait hours in line to cast a ballot, they said.

True the Vote

One group that's attracted a lot of criticism from civil rights advocates is True the Vote, a tea party-affiliated group in Texas that is training "tens of thousands" of Florida volunteers to be poll watchers across the Sunshine State. The group is hoping to sponsor a million observers across the country.

Their job will be to observe the voting process, take notes and bring any objections to the immediate attention of local polling officials to safeguard the integrity of the electoral system, said Catherine Engelbrecht, president of the group.

"The singular responsibility (of a poll watcher) is to observe the process and protect voters' rights," she said. "It's really a very, very simple proposition: What do state election laws say should be happening? Are those things happening?"

Voters who are successfully challenged would have to file a provisional ballot, which would not be counted until after Election Day.

That could mean a repeat of 2000 if the recent polls showing Mitt Romney and Barack Obama neck-and-neck in Florida turn out to be accurate.

If the state is key to determining the presidency and tens of thousands of provisional ballots have to be counted after Election Day, "then you're going to have every campaign swarming every single county fighting over every single provisional ballot," said Eric Marshall, who heads Legal Mobilization for the Lawyers' Committee.

It's a concern shared by Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida.

She opposes the Florida law, calling it "an indefensible body blow to our election process."

But Macnab also thinks conditions are considerably better for Sunshine State voters than they were when Al Gore unsuccessfully battled George W. Bush in 2000.

"We've seen all new voting machinery in the state. We've gotten rid of the hanging chads. We have a paper trail. They've initiated early voting," she said.

And, she said, "I think one of our biggest strengths is the fact that we have 67 independent (county) supervisors of election who take very seriously their job of ensuring a fair election."

Voter education

Chris Cate, a spokesman for the Florida Department of State, said he doesn't expect widespread voter confusion this election cycle, largely because the state has run an aggressive campaign to educate Floridians about the new law. And, he said, the state has held two primary elections this year under the new rules.

But both primaries attracted a relatively small portion of the electorate. The presidential preference contest in January drew 1.7 million voters, while the August primary attracted 2.3 million. In 2008, 8.5 million - or 75 percent - of Florida's 11.2 million registered voters showed up at the polls for the general election.

There were almost 11.8 million registered voters as of Sept. 12, according to the Florida Division of Elections.

"We're expecting to have a successful election," Cate said. "We think we're going to have an accurate count of voters in Florida but we want people to be aware of voter fraud and to be on the lookout for it."

Some of that fraud has taken place in the past week with the fraudulent letters and phony calls. As many as 100 of the letters were sent to voters, most of them registered Republicans, scattered in 28 counties, Cate said. The FBI is investigating.

The calls have been harder to track, but Cate estimates a handful have been made to voters around the state.

Arnwine of the lawyers' committee said she's bracing for more trouble in Florida.

"We've got another week to go," she said. "And they usually save the worst for last."

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