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Battles in Lake Co. may decide Indiana race

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[October 25, 2008]  CROWN POINT, Ind. (AP) -- An Indiana county still recovering from a primary night black eye is embroiled in a new election-year drama that could determine whether Democrats win Indiana's presidential contest for the first time in more than four decades.

Weeks after questions arose over suspect voter registrations, a Republican lawsuit seeks to close early voting sites in three heavily Democratic Lake County cities: Gary, East Chicago and Hammond. Democrats say the GOP is trying to suppress minority voting. Four judges have already weighed in on the case, which is headed to the state's Court of Appeals.

DonutsThe flaps have cast renewed suspicion over the heavily Democratic county that former Attorney General Robert Kennedy once called one of the nation's most corrupt.

"The amount of political corruption that takes place in this county is amazing, for a lack of a better word," said Marie Eisenstein, an assistant professor of political science at Indiana University Northwest in Gary. "There's a lot of it, so people have a right to be suspicious."

Local election officials are scrambling to assure voters that they aren't engaged in familiar political shenanigans in a gritty area dominated by steel mills and oil refineries along Lake Michigan.

Gary Mayor Rudy Clay accuses Republicans of using scare tactics by raising the specter of voter fraud in an attempt to make it harder for people in the county's northern communities - many with large minority populations - to cast ballots.

"That is a smoke screen by the Republican Party to slow down, stop and disenfranchise people in Gary, Indiana, and the north end of the county," said Clay, the county's Democratic Party chairman.


Barack Obama needs a strong showing in Lake County if he is to win the state, which no Democratic presidential candidate has done since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Indiana's second-largest county is friendly territory for the senator from neighboring Illinois. It has gone for the Republican presidential candidate only once since 1960 - Richard Nixon in 1972 - and its population is Indiana's most diverse, at 26 percent black and 14 percent Hispanic. The city of Gary, which overwhelmingly supported Obama in the primary, is 85 percent black.

Many polls show the race between Obama and Republican John McCain is a tossup in Indiana.

The pre-election squabbling is "embarrassing to me and embarrassing to the county," said Terry Stanton, 25, a financial analyst from Hobart.

Memories are still fresh of the late vote tallies that delayed results of the May primary. Clay and Democratic Mayor Thomas McDermott of Hammond sniped at each other in late-night appearances on CNN, and the nation waited well past midnight to learn that New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton had defeated Obama.

In 2003, the state Supreme Court threw out an East Chicago mayoral primary because people were paid to cast absentee ballots. In 1999, millions in city money was spent paving East Chicago sidewalks and driveways to curry favor with voters in the mayoral primary.

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Clay insists that's in the past.

"This is the first time in a long time that Indiana's become a battleground state in the presidential election and Lake County is in the battle," he said.

Republican Secretary of State Todd Rokita said some of the problems in Lake County, including questionable registrations submitted by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, are occurring in other states as well.

"I'm not sensing this is being done by any local machinery there," Rokita said of Lake County.

A record 4.5 million voters are registered in Indiana this year, and Rokita has encouraged early voting to ease congestion on Election Day. More than 221,000 absentee ballots had been cast statewide as of Oct. 24.

Early voting was delayed by more than a week in the three Lake County communities after Republicans on the county election board voted against opening satellite sites in them.

Republicans contend a single site in Crown Point, in the county's southern portion, is sufficient. They fear additional centers would increase the risk of fraud - even though Indiana has one of the nation's toughest voter identification laws.


Democrats say it's unfair to limit early voting to Crown Point, a predominantly white community not easily accessed by poor, minority residents in other parts of the county who require public transportation.

"I think what they know is that minorities are supportive of Barack Obama," said Democratic state Sen. Earline Rogers of Gary.

[Associated Press; By TOM COYNE]

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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