News Nets Look Out for Voter Fraud

Networks prepare for potential mayhem at polls in battleground states.

Related: Complete 2008 Election Coverage

Voter fraud has become a hot topic in the final days before Election Day with Democrats railing about voter suppression and illegal purging of election rolls and Republicans accusing the left of padding election rolls with fictitious voters. Republican candidate John McCain fired an ominous broadside in the final presidential debate last month, accusing the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) of widespread registration fraud that very well could “destroy the fabric of democracy.”

News outlets have followed the fire, filing a preponderance of stories about the issue.

In a report that aired last week on the CBS Evening News, chief investigative correspondent Armen Keteyian and his team surveyed 17 states that allow early voting including Ohio, Florida and Colorado where the drumbeat of voter fraud and/or suppression has been the loudest. Their conclusion: the outcry over voter tampering was, you guessed, hyperbole.

Bob Bauer, general counsel for the Obama campaign, told Keteyian they had seen no evidence of people who were registered to vote being turned away at the polls.

McCain campaign advisor Brian Jones said he could not cite iron-clad examples of voter fraud in early voting sates.

“It’s hard to put an actual number on voter fraud,” he told Keteyian.

Still, television news is awash in voter fraud segments. And pundits on the left and right—from Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow to Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly—have seized on the issue, using it as a rhetorical club.

How and if voter suppression or fraud plays out on Election Day remains to be seen.

“We think that going into Election Night there’s certainly a story there and especially in close states,” says David Rhodes, VP of news at Fox News. “But some of this depends on what the margin is in these states on Election Night. If it’s not even close, mathematically it starts to become a less significant issue.”

CNN is taking complaints directly from voters. The network set up a national hotline (877-462-6608), which it flogs on its news programming, where voters can report problems and irregularities at the polls. Since the hotline was established in mid-October, more than 20,000 calls have been logged, according to a network spokesperson.

The hotline center is staffed by InfoVoter Technologies, which will code problems and also direct voters to their correct polling location or put them in touch with their local election board.

Long lines at polling locations open for early voting already has become a narrative of election coverage. Thirty two states allow early voting. The New York Times last week estimated that a quarter of the electorate has already cast their ballots.In Florida, waits of up to five hours led Gov. Charlie Crist to issue an executive order extending state-wide early voting hours from 8 to 12 hours a day.

The large number of new voters on the rolls this year has the potential to become an integral part of the Election Night story especially in battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio where both campaigns have mounted aggressive get-out-the-vote efforts.

Pennsylvania has added more than 600,000 registered Democrats to its voter rolls, and Democrats now outnumber registered Republicans in the state by 1.2 million. Gov. Ed Rendell, an outspoken Hillary Clinton-turned-Barack Obama supporter, has made it a mission to get 70% of registered Democrats in the heavily Democratic greater Philadelphia area to the polls on Nov. 4.

“That’s a whole lot of people to show up at the same number of polling places over the course of just one day,” observes Rhodes. “I think everybody expects a large number of new voters in a number of states. So we could see some really long lines. A lot of these states could stay open late. And that could really prolong any projection of the outcome.”