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Parties prepare for S.C. voting challenges

COLUMBIA -- Republicans and Democrats are gearing up for possible legal challenges as voters head to the polls between now and Tuesday.

Both have set up hot lines to report voting problems or fraud as has the U.S. Department of Justice and have attorneys ready to respond if needed.

Those concerns bubbled up Thursday in Spartanburg County, after county GOP poll watchers questioned absentee in-person voters.

Republicans said they were asking legitimate questions about voter identities, while observers -- many of them Democrats -- believed the intent was to discourage those in line from waiting.

Spartanburg County GOP chairman Rick Beltram said many voters in the four-hour-long line appeared to be at the polls to vote early. Absentee voting, Beltram said, is not intended for those who want to vote early.

Beltram, who is a certified poll watcher, questioned whether one 74-year-old woman's signature matched that of her identifica- tion. Another voter was questioned because the voter's identification, Beltram said, was "badly tattered."

"The signature did not even come close to matching the signature she put in the book. We were well within our rights to ask questions."

But others, including Ruby Rice, disagreed. Rice, a local community activist and NAACP veteran, objected to Beltram's questions.

Eventually, Beltram left the election office.

"It has been going on all week," Rice said. "He was slowing down the process, challenging voters for being there.

"Somebody had to say something to him."

Witnesses said it was hot in the office, that wait times were long, and that the challenges were making the wait longer. Most of the challenged voters were black, but both Beltram and Rice said that race was not an issue.

County elections director Henry Laye told the Spartanburg Herald Journal that Beltram followed the rules and was not harassing voters. Efforts to reach Laye were unsuccessful.

Voting issues have been high-priority across the country this year, as millions of new voters have been added to the rolls. In South Carolina, more than 300,000 were added this year.

In a number of swing states, voter registrations turned in by community group Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, have proven fraudulent.

Democrats have accused Republicans of trying to suppress voter turnout.

The South Carolina campaign of Democratic U.S. Sen. Barack Obama said they have objected to a handful of local elections decisions. In one case, said Obama S.C. director Trav Robertson, the campaign felt elections officials were pressured not to use more voting machines to shorten waits for those voting absentee in person.

Preparing for legal challenges is part of its get-out-the-vote planning, and the campaign promises to have an attorney on site 15 minutes after a voting problem is reported. The state Republican Party said it, too, will be prepared for possible legal challenges.

In January, for instance, Republican U.S. Sen. John McCain considered filing a lawsuit to extend GOP primary voting hours after Horry County machines malfunctioned early in the day.

Beltram said Republicans are prepared to make sure only registered voters are counted, training poll watchers to monitor 50 Spartanburg County precincts on Election Day.

Rice said she will be out to make sure every vote matters.

"No matter who you vote for, just cast it," Rice said. "We got to move. We got to be alert."

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