Vote complaint tracking concerns investigators

WASHINGTON – The Justice Department must improve its ability to track complaints of voting irregularities to assure public confidence in an upcoming presidential election expected to produce another close result, congressional investigators say.

A Government Accountability Office report Thursday found that in the 2000 election, the voting section of the Justice Department’s civil rights division “did not have a reliable method” to determine whether many complaints received by telephone merited an investigation.

“It is important that the information collected be as complete, accurate and specific as possible regarding specific allegations,” the GAO concluded. “Confidence in our election process is of the utmost importance.”

The report by the independent, nonpartisan GAO was released by two senior House Democrats _ Reps. John Conyers of Michigan and Henry Waxman of California _ less than three weeks before voters decide whether to re-elect President Bush or replace him with Democrat John Kerry.

Polls show a neck-and-neck race, leading Republicans and Democrats to predict a finish possibly as tight as the 2000 contest between Bush and Al Gore. That election was decided by the Supreme Court after a lengthy battle centering on allegations of voting improprieties and confusion in Florida.

In a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft, Conyers and Waxman said the GAO report raises questions about the Justice Department’s ability to track and investigate complaints that might arise from this year’s voting.

“These findings raise questions about what the Justice Department has been doing for the last four years,” the two congressmen wrote.

Democrats are also asking for a Justice Department investigation into allegations that voter registration forms submitted by Democratic voters in Nevada and Oregon were destroyed by employees of a company under contract with the Republican National Committee.

“The Department of Justice has the responsibility to vigorously defend the registration and voting process from those who may conspire to subvert it for their own partisan purposes,” said a letter to Ashcroft from Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.

Eric Holland, spokesman for the agency’s civil rights division, said the Justice Department has already adopted the GAO recommendations to improve tracking of complaints, including use of a computerized case management system.

In addition, Holland said that this year more than 700 civil rights monitors were deployed around the country for primary elections, with another 1,000 expected to be on duty to watch for irregularities at polls on Nov. 2. That compares with 516 monitors in 2000.

“The department has implemented significant changes to help ensure voter access to the polls,” Holland said.

The main concern raised by the GAO about telephone voter complaints concerned the way they were logged and categorized in 2000 by agency personnel and outside contractors. The Justice Department used only broad categories and included limited details, making it difficult for officials to decide whether to initiate an investigation.

The logs were unable to record calls from four states: Arkansas, Kansas, Montana and North Dakota, the GAO added. And they also did not provide contact information from the caller, such as the person’s telephone number.

The report notes that the Justice Department’s voting section received an unprecedented 11,000 calls in November and December of 2000. Only 34 resulted in investigations of election-related voting irregularities, 13 of which eventually were closed for lack of merit. Eight are still open pending court or state legislative action to fix the problems.