By WILLIAM MARCH
TAMPA - It's more a ripple than a tidal wave, but in a growing stream of e-mail and Internet chat, John Kerry partisans are suggesting that last week's election was hacked, distorted, stolen or somehow marred by fraud.
The electronic squawks focus on Florida and Ohio, the two states thought to have decided the contest between Kerry and President Bush.
The rumblings have obtained little official credence, though some experts say the issue should be addressed if only to assure confidence in the election system.
Six congressional Democrats, including Rep. Robert Wexler of Boca Raton, have called for a federal investigation of the scattered reports of voting irregularities and seemingly anomalous results that have fueled the rumors.
Their letter to the General Accounting Office ``is saying we have some questions and we want to make sure we're conducting the fairest, most equitable election possible,'' said Lale Mamaux, a spokeswoman for Wexler, who was in Israel on Wednesday. ``We need a fair, nonpartisan organization coming out there and saying yes or no.''
The Internet talk is fueled in part by some documented election irregularities, and in part by speculation.
* In Ohio, an error with an electronic voting system in suburban Columbus gave Bush 4,258 votes to Kerry's 260 - in a precinct where only 638 voters cast ballots. That error, officials said, was caught and rectified.
* In Florida, a Broward County tally of votes on the state gambling initiative failed to record thousands of ballots.
* In North Carolina, more than 4,000 votes in one rural county were lost irretrievably when election workers mishandled a voting machine.
Election Day exit polls that wrongly called the race for Kerry are being cited as evidence that there was tampering with the results.
In one widely circulated article, CommonDreams.org, a liberal online site, quoted comments by conservative- leaning pollster Dick Morris saying: ``Exit polls are almost never wrong.''
Morris concluded that in this case, however, the polls were wrong.
Bill Bucolo, a St. Petersburg political activist who has been assembling and disseminating Internet-based information and e-mail on the subject, said public faith in the election system is at stake.
``There's a lot of evidence that too much happened in this election to take for granted that it was an honest election,'' he said. ``There's a feeling of loss and grievance, that the country's gone down the tubes because we can't believe in our elections any more.''
Political experts tend to dismiss the idea.
The conspiracy theorists should ``take a Valium and go to bed,'' said political scientist Darryl Paulson of the University of South Florida. ``These folks are in denial.''
The most important contention concerning Florida appears to be that Bush got disproportionate numbers of votes in counties that use optical-scan ballots.
The outcomes are cited in optical-scan counties that have large numbers of registered Democrats but that voted heavily for Bush. The suggestion is that the computers used to count optical-scan ballots may have been hacked.
Many of the counties are small, rural places in North Florida. Many large, urban counties use touch-screen machines, and in those larger counties, voting more closely tracked party registration.
In their call for an investigation, the members of Congress cited ``a substantial drop-off in Democratic votes in proportion to voter registration in counties utilizing optical scan machines.''
Dixie County, for example, had 7,495 registered Democrats and 1,454 Republicans, but it voted more than 2-to-1 for Bush, 4,433 to 1,959.
In Union County, there were 5,331 Democrats to 1,291 Republicans, but the county went for Bush over Kerry by 3,396 to 1,251.
Even some leading Democrats in those counties said that's not fraud, though.
It has more to do with primary elections closed to all but registered party members, they said. In a vestige of the Democratic Solid South, a Democratic primary often decides local elections in those counties.
``That means you have to be a registered Democrat if you want to vote on any of your local officials,'' said Don Hicks, Union County Democratic Party chairman.
Union elected three county commissioners this year, for example, but none of the races was on the general election ballot because no Republican ran.
As a result, Hicks said, Union is full of registered Democrats who side with the GOP outside local matters.
``There's no fraud in my county. I'm adamant about that,'' he said.
Arthur Pinner, Dixie County Democratic chairman, took the argument further. He voted personally for Bush, he said, ``on account of his morals.''
Kerry ``was a liberal way down the road; he believed in same-sex marriage and abortion,'' Pinner said. ``It came out in all the magazines.''
Pinner couldn't name which magazines reported that - in fact, Kerry opposes gay marriage - before clarifying that his source wasn't a magazine.
``Pamphlets that was passed out in church,'' he said. He wasn't sure whom the pamphlets came from, but said, ``I believed them enough so I didn't vote for him.''
Jenny Nash, spokeswoman for the Florida Division of Elections, said the allegations of fraud are wrong.
``These groups prior to the election were trying to plant doubt in voters' minds pertaining to touch screens,'' and they've switched to optical- scan machines, she said. ``If you look at the statistical history, the voting results were similar to past elections.''
Reporter William March can be reached at (813) 259-7761.
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