Sarah Dittoe is studying political science at the University of Pittsburgh, and in this year's election, she says, "I'm learning a lot."
Like how easy it is to become a victim of voter fraud.
When Dittoe registered to vote earlier this summer, she identified herself as a member of the Green Party. Weeks before the election, though, she received a second registration card -- one she didn't ask for, and one that identified her as a Republican.
Like a number of college-age voters, Dittoe suspects she's been victimized by a mysterious scam involving a petition she signed this summer. The petitioners were standing near the Pitt bookstore, she says, seeking signatures to support legalizing the medicinal use of marijuana. Dittoe signed and showed the petitioners her driver's license when asked: "I thought it was to prove I was old enough to vote, and they wrote it down." What they jotted down -- license number, address and birth date -- was most of the information they'd need to forge a voter-registration form.
"They looked about 24 or 25," Dittoe recalls. "One had dreadlocks and the other looked kind of hip. They didn't look like my idea of Republicans."
As Dittoe has since learned, however, Republicans can wear many faces -- including the one in the mirror. And that of Lisa Corrado, a Pitt student from Jefferson Hills who also signed the petition. The medical-marijuana petitioners, she says, "didn't say anything about voter registration. All I did was sign the thing and put down my address. Although now that I think about it, maybe I did sign another form as well.
"I feel like such an idiot."
The identities of the petitioners remain a mystery, as does their motivation. In a general election, being Republican doesn't prevent you from voting for Democrats.
One possibility is that these "petitioners" are being paid by GOP sympathizers for every Republican they register. Similar get-out-the-vote efforts are being reported around the country. These temp workers may be turning over fake voters for cash, and running with the money before their bosses realize what's happening. If nothing else that could mean Republicans have at last found one line of work they don't want to outsource.
Another theory, however, is that this scam is being perpetrated not on Bush supporters, but by them.
"It sounds like an effort to discourage people from voting," says Barry Kauffman, the executive director of Harrisburg political watchdog group Common Cause. Kauffman notes that voters are listed by party affiliation at the polls, and worries voters might give up if their names aren't where they are supposed to be. "The person might just get frustrated and walk away," Kauffman says, "especially a new voter."
It's probably no accident that this scam targets college-age voters, a group that polls show favoring Kerry. The choice of medical marijuana as the hot-button issue seems similarly calculated, although Dittoe says, "Maybe they were trying to pick out apathetic pothead college students" who wouldn't complain about being duped.
At least Dittoe and Corrado will be at the right polling place on Nov. 2. Their classmates might not: An Oct. 23 Post-Gazette story reported that other petition-signers have had their polling places changed. Some probably won't realize that they've been victimized until Election Day.
In fact, without realizing it you've been a victim of the scam too. As Corrado wonders, "How much time are elections workers spending on these fraudulent switches?" While no one knows how widespread the scam is, Dittoe recalls seeing dozens of signatures on the petition she signed. Each of those names may be in the pile of work facing harried county election workers, who have their hands full this election trying to process forms for real Republicans and Democrats.
Brian McDonald, a spokesperson for Pennsylvania's Department of State, has some advice for voters who feel unjustly excluded from the polls on Election Day: Demand a provisional ballot from election workers. And contact county election officials "if you feel your rights have been slighted or violated."
That's what Corrado did. "The lady at the election office told me, â€˜Honey, you've got to watch out, because they will do anything to get that guy elected,'" she recalls. "But I can't approach everybody thinking they're going to commit fraud."
That's the most degrading lesson of the 2004 and 2000 elections: We used to only approach the candidates that way.