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Heavy turnout expected for vote

| Monday, Nov. 5, 2012, 12:02 a.m.

The long lines that stretched outside voting precincts four years ago are expected to return on Tuesday.

Westmoreland County Election Bureau Director Jim Montini said voting is expected to be heavy, comparable to the 2008 turnout when about 72 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the presidential election.

“We're asking voters to be patient. There will be lines,” Montini said.

Montini said he expects 70 percent to 75 percent of the county's 238,006 registered voters to turn out to the polls, spurred on by a showdown between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

About 70 percent of Allegheny County's nearly 925,000 registered voters are expected to vote on Tuesday, said Mark Wolosik, the county's elections division manager.

Wolosik said his prediction was based on previous presidential elections.

The county issued more than 35,000 absentee ballots. Wolosik could not say how many had been returned.

Total voter registration is up by about 35,000, Wolosik said. The majority, about 44 percent, are Democrats; about 21 percent are Republicans, with the difference being “all others.”

Wolosik said the number of voters registered as independent, non-partisan or unaffiliated has been growing.

Interest in this year's election has been on pace with four years ago.

Westmoreland County distributed more than 9,300 absentee ballot applications this year and expects about 90 percent of those to be returned.

Four years ago, 9,200 absentee ballots were counted, Montini said.

To accommodate the anticipated heavy turnout, the county will operate a hot line to assist poll workers with voter registration questions and a separate phone line for technical support for computerized voting machines.

The county scuttled a plan to hire poll workers when implementation of the state's new voter identification law was delayed.

Voters will be asked to show a photo identification card at the polls but those without will still be able to cast ballots.

Voter turnout is higher for presidential elections than local election years, said Shari Brewer, director of Butler County's Bureau of Elections.

Based on past elections, she predicted turnout will be “average” at around 70 percent.

Brewer said her bureau received about 5,300 applications for absentee ballots, which she said is down slightly. Of those, about 86 percent had been returned.

There are 122,762 registered voters in Butler County. There are 62,863 people registered as Republicans, 43,970 Democrats and 15,929 voters listed as others.

While turnout is expected to be heavy in Allegheny, Butler and Westmoreland counties, Armstrong County officials aren't so optimistic.

Wendy Buzard, director of Elections and Voter Registration for Armstrong County, said she thinks there will be a larger than normal turnout but guessed that would be only about 45 percent of registered voters.

“I think a lot of people are very interested in this election and we'll see a lot of people out there,” she said. “I'd love to see 50 percent or more. I don't know. I'm being cautious with my prediction.”

Buzard said 75 percent of about 1,400 absentee ballots had been returned as of Wednesday.

She hopes turnout is higher than her educated guess.

“There's so much talk out there you'd think that close to 70 percent might be out to vote,” she said. “I don't think it's going to be that high.”

There are 42,147 registered voters in Armstrong County. Of those, 20,374 are registered as Republicans, 17,582 Democrats and 4,191 voters listed as others.

Dozens of lawyers will be stationed throughout Western Pennsylvania to field complaints of election fraud and answer questions about voting rights.

Others, located inside a command center at Reed Smith's Pittsburgh offices, will dispatch mobile counterparts to areas where a need arises. In all, more than 1,000 volunteers will be on call in Pennsylvania.

“The bottom line is that we want to make sure that everyone who is registered to vote and can cast a ballot is able to do so,” said Kim Watterson, a partner at Reed Smith who is helping coordinate the effort with lawyers, local nonprofits, the American Civil Liberties Union, Duquesne University, the University of Pittsburgh and Election Protection, a nationwide nonprofit.

The most common problems in Allegheny County include people leaving campaign literature inside polling locations, faulty voting machines and polling locations that open late, said Sara Rose, a lawyer for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.

“Most things are not done purposefully,” Rose said. “It's more a lack of communication.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Shaun E. Sweeney and a team of lawyers at the direction of U.S. Attorney David Hickton will be on duty to handle any problems. Special agents from the FBI will be available to receive allegations of election fraud and other abuses.

“Every citizen must be able to vote without interference or discrimination and to have their vote counted,” Hickton said. “The Department of Justice will act promptly and aggressively to protect the integrity of the election process.”

Concerns about voter fraud appear to be coming earlier than usual this year, likely because of the hotly contested presidential race.

People in Florida and Virginia — two states where polls show President Obama and former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney neck-and-neck — have gotten phone calls telling them they can vote by phone. In Florida, some voters are receiving bogus letters — purportedly signed by local election supervisors — questioning their citizenship and eligibility to vote.

In Pennsylvania, the state's new voter ID law could confuse voters or poll workers who are unfamiliar with it.

“There was a lot of back and forth so it might be unclear to people what the law actually is this year,” Rose said.

Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or Brian Rittmeyer is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4701 or Trib Total Media staff writer Adam Brandolph contributed to this report.

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