Another election is marred by dirty tricks

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Early yesterday morning, Tim Daly of Clarendon, Virginia found a message on his voice mail threatening him with arrest if he showed up to vote.

"This is the Virginia Elections Commission," the message said. "We've determined you are registered in New York to vote. Therefore, you will not be allowed to cast your vote... If you do show up, you will be charged criminally."

Mr Daly, who has lived and voted in Virginia since 1998, quickly figured out this was not the Virginia Elections Commission at all, but a rogue operation intended to intimidate Democratic Party sympathisers like himself.

Within hours of the polls opening in Virginia - battleground of one of the tightest Senate races in the mid-term elections - both the state attorney's office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation had opened inquiries. But reports of dirty campaigning, most if not quite all of it carried out on behalf of the Republican Party, cascaded across the country so fast that it was almost impossible for law enforcement, or anyone else, to keep up.

In several states, Democrats - especially African Americans - complained that they had been called and told the location of their precinct had changed, when it hadn't. In 20 of the closest House districts around the country, registered Democrats and independents found themselves bombarded with so-called "robo-calls" - computer-generated messages that sound at first like get-out-the-vote initiatives on behalf of Democratic candidates but grow ever more negative as they go on until it finally becomes clear they are endorsed by the Republican Party.

Voters complained not only that the messages were deceptive, but that they arrived with deadening regularity, sometimes very late at night, in what appeared to be a concerted effort by Republicans to anger their recipients and turn them off the idea of voting at all. Some of the underhand tactics were even perpetuated by the media. The conservative radio talk-show host Laura Ingraham spent some of her morning show openly mocking a voter protection hotline set up the Democrats and repeatedly aired the phone number - leading to a spike in crank calls that slowed down voters with bona fide complaints to air.

Dirty campaigning in the United States is as old as voting itself, and it tends to be more egregious when, as in this case, the election is regarded as pivotal and the races are close. Certain tactics, like trying to misdirect voters to the wrong precinct or telling them the election is on Wednesday, not Tuesday, are time-honoured.

In the South, and in some of the bigger East Coast cities, such efforts are frequently directed at African Americans, who tend to be more distrustful of authority than other Americans and thus more prone to intimidation if, say, they are threatened with arrest for outstanding parking tickets if they show up to vote.

Yesterday, though, Virginia appeared to be the worst offender, following a bruising campaign between George Allen, the incumbent Republican Senator, and Jim Webb, his Democratic challenger. Peter Baumann, from Cape Charles, reported getting a call from a purported Webb volunteer telling him his polling location had changed. When he told the caller he was a poll worker and knew perfectly well where he was voting, she hung up. Buckingham County, which is heavily African American, was flooded in fliers that read: " Skip This Election" in large bold-face letters.

In anticipation of the problems, around 10,000 lawyers working for the Republican and Democratic parties had been dispatched across the country to intervene if problems arose, while the US Justice Department also sent more than 850 observers to 22 states.

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