Yo Soy Centroamericano

Why vote Kerry? Exhibit No. 1: George W. Bush has shamelessly hired the dangerous figures behind the Iran-Contra Affair into senior diplomatic posts.

The mob of first-time voters expected to converge on polling places Nov. 2 presents a problem for county poll workers, local volunteers who are sometimes unversed in the minutiae of voters' legal rights. According to a recent story in Newsweek,New Mexico has received more than 100,000 new voter applications; in Washington state, the figure is said to be 300,000. Officials are attempting to get the new names onto mailing lists, to tell them where to vote, and to put them on the voting rolls so they aren't turned away once they get to the polls.

That newly registered voters would be refused the right to vote isn't merely a theoretical possibility. So many properly registered voters were rebuffed by poll workers in Florida four years ago that federal law now requires that voters have access to so-called "provisional" ballots if their names aren't on a particular precinct's list of eligible voters. Such ballots are scrutinized later and, if cast by a legitimate voter, counted.

But the law is vague. In about half the states, voters can use a provisional ballot if they accidentally go to the wrong polling place. In other states, polling officials believe they can turn such voters away. The resulting chaos is the subject of lawsuits against Missouri, Ohio, Michigan, and Florida, alleging that state officials unfairly apply federal voting-rights laws passed in the wake of the Florida 2000 vote count. In some places, county and state officials feud over how to deal with the expected phalanx of inexperienced voters. County poll workers in Ohio say they'll defy the secretary of state's order instructing local poll workers to deny a ballot to anyone arriving at the wrong voting booth.

Then there's the issue of outright voter suppression. According to a recent report by the NAACP and the liberal group People for the American Way called "The Long Shadow of Jim Crow: Voter Intimidation and Suppression in America," black voters in Philadelphia were challenged last year by men carrying clipboards who were not authorized by the government to do so, but who may have dissuaded some people from voting, nonetheless. In this year's South Dakota primary, some Native American voters said they were told they couldn't vote without photo IDs, when in fact photo identification is not required. In Michigan, a Republican congressman was quoted in a newspaper saying his party's prospects depended on suppressing the Detroit vote, which is primarily black.

Then there's the nonideological yet equally pressing vote-suppression issue of government officials with a role in the elections process being too lazy, arrogant, or ignorant to properly ensure the right to vote.

I happened to witness one such incident a couple of weeks ago at the Haight-Ashbury post office, where a worker lectured a man who wanted five voter registration forms for friends at his workplace. Haight postal workers had put the forms behind the counter, in violation of U.S. Postal Service policy, so they wouldn't run out as quickly, requiring the poor, overworked postal workers to put out more.

"It's not our responsibility to provide forms for people who aren't going to come down here themselves," the postal worker said.

I left a message with the Postal Service press office, and spokesman Horace Hinshaw called back to say the forms were returned to the lobby where they belonged.

"It's just an unfortunate incident, and I certainly apologize for that," Hinshaw said.

I can only imagine what will happen during the evening hours of Nov. 2, when tens of thousands of county volunteers are inundated by more than a million new voters who may not have been to a polling place before. Will the poll workers do everything possible to ensure their right to vote?

By the beginning of this month, nearly 11,000 volunteers had signed up with Working Assets to stand near polling places with printed lists of state voting laws, cell phones at the ready to call San Francisco-based banks of attorneys, who will sit at their ready to make sure everyone who wishes to vote, gets to. In as many as 10 states, with Ohio and Florida being the most significant, opinion polls are now so close that the presidency may again be decided by a handful of votes. Whether or not large numbers of qualified voters are turned away could very well tip the election -- again.

"I want to make sure, particularly Spanish-speaking people, Mexicans, El Salvadorans, who are here legally, have the right to vote," Maria Elena Mestayer says. "I hope that by my presence, and my charming personality, they're going to feel safe. And they're not going to be turned away."

Under ordinary circumstances, I don't use my column to stump for the pet projects of friends. Becky Bond, who drove the successful effort to register a million voters for Working Assets and its allies and now spends much of her time on red-eye flights pulling together the Election Protection operation, is a longtime, dear friend.

Touting a friend's work creates the potential for a journalistic conflict of interest, even for an opinion columnist who's supposed to be grinding axes every week.

"Is this reallywhat he thinks is most interesting to San Franciscans?" a reader is bound to ask. "Has he weighed all the evidence, and reached an honest conclusion? Is he pulling any punches?"

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