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Voting rights efforts' biggest test is Tuesday

WASHINGTON — Hailing legal victories in Colorado and Michigan, election watchdog groups say that they think they've thwarted efforts to prevent tens of thousands of students and poor minorities from voting on Tuesday.

"It really does look as if most of the efforts to knock people off the rolls will not come to fruition," said Michael Waldman, the executive director of New York University's Brennan Center for Justice. "At this point, voters who are eligible will be able to vote."

With lingering allegations of fraud and manipulation clouding President Bush's election victories in 2000 and 2004, that might reassure Americans who are dreading another disputed election. It comes after a month of court and public relations battles over Republican allegations of voter fraud and Democratic charges of unlawful schemes to disenfranchise voters.

Even so, in the campaign's final days, political operatives have been spreading misinformation to frighten or confuse voters. In Virginia, a swing state for the first time in decades, a bogus flier carrying the Virginia Election Board's Internet logo advised Republicans to vote on Tuesday and Democrats to vote on Wednesday — which is after the polls close. A flier floating around Drexel University in Philadelphia falsely warned students with unpaid parking tickets that they would be arrested if they tried to vote.

Civil rights groups and even a mobile phone company have created new Web sites to help voters find their polling places and fend off challenges by taking the required identification.

John McCain and the Republican National Committee have sought to frame concerns about the election's integrity around investigations into allegations that the liberal Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now has fraudulently registered thousands of voters, but no evidence has surfaced of a scheme to steal the election.

Watchdog groups worry that Republican challenges to the eligibility of ACORN-registered voters and other new registrants will lengthen waiting times, especially in precincts already likely to be bottlenecked for lack of voting machines, and may send some people home or to work without voting.

Democrats charge that the ACORN allegations are a smokescreen for Republican attempts to suppress voting by people who are likely to favor Democrats.

Nowhere has the action over those allegations been more intense than in Ohio, which decided the 2004 election.

In 2006, Ohio's Republican-controlled legislature passed a law requiring counties to mail notices that can't be forwarded to all voters, a law that critics charged would assist the Republican Party in challenging the residency of voters whose notices were returned because they were out of town.

When 600,000 notices came back undelivered, Democratic Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner provided those names to the political parties, but she issued a directive barring challenges to voters' eligibility based solely on returned postcards.

Some of this year's problems can be traced to Congress' reaction to the 2000 election battle, which revolved around "hanging chads," holes that weren't fully punched next to Bush's or rival Al Gore's names.

In 2002, Congress passed the Help America Vote Act, which required states to buy new voting equipment and to keep centralized databases of registered voters, but some experts say the law's unintended consequences have made things worse.

Computer scientists have found that nearly every voting machine now in use has security or reliability flaws, or both. Complaints in recent days from early voters in West Virginia that an iVotronic model made by Election Software & Systems "flipped" votes from Democrat Barack Obama to McCain have fueled voters' distrust. The Brennan Center sent letters advising 16 other states that use the iVotronic to "recalibrate" the machines periodically.

The 2002 voting act's requirement that states' chief election officers keep central databases of registered voters has spawned legal battles from coast to coast. The law required states to routinely purge ineligible voters' names from the lists and to match new registration data with error-riddled driver's license and federal Social Security databases.

The act doesn't disqualify voters whose data don't precisely match, but some states have purged thousands of names from the rolls on a no-match, no-vote basis.

"For people who are trying to use the levers of election administration to restrict the electorate," the availability of a statewide database makes wholesale purges easier, said Jonah Goldman, the director of the National Campaign for Fair Elections for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.