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Archive for Thursday, October 21, 2004

Legal challenges already filed in election

October 21, 2004

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— A new political strategy has emerged in this photo-finish presidential race: File a flurry of lawsuits before the first votes are even tallied.

From Oregon to Florida, Democrats and Republicans are firing away at such issues as touch-screen voting machines and provisional ballots. The lawsuits represent a hard-learned lesson from 2000: Do not wait until all the votes are counted to go to court.

"I have never seen this level of concern about an election," said Laughlin McDonald, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Voting Rights Project.

Others believe the legal wrangling may serve only to damage the voting process.

"It's disastrous for fundamental faith in the system itself," said Doug Lewis, executive director of the Election Center, a nonprofit organization working with polling administrators across the country. "Pretty soon you get people saying, 'Shoot, then why bother to vote?'"

In more than a dozen states, including the big battleground sites of Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Missouri, a series of lawsuits have been filed in the past few months. Most of the cases were brought on behalf of Democrats.

Two of the most common legal battles are about electronic voting and provisional ballots.

Florida and 28 other states will use touch-screen machines, but that has prompted lawsuits claiming the ATM-like devices are unreliable because they produce no paper receipts that could be used in a recount. On Tuesday, a lawsuit filed in New Jersey asked that 8,000 of the machines be banned on Election Day for those reasons. A trial over the e-voting machines also got under way this week in Florida -- just as residents started going to the polls for the start of early voting.

Provisional ballots -- essentially replacement ballots given to voters whose names somehow get left off precinct rolls -- have prompted intense fighting in battleground states such as Ohio, Michigan and Florida.

Missouri officials said that voter rolls suggesting that 4.2 million people are eligible to vote are inflated because census figures show fewer than 4.3 million voting-age residents.

Courtroom battles

In court decisions issued this past week, Democrats won their fight to ease restrictions on such ballots. In Ohio and Michigan, judges ruled that a voter who showed up at the wrong polling place could still cast a provisional ballot as long as he or she was in the right city or county.

But on Monday, Republicans scored a victory for their side of the argument when the Florida Supreme Court ruled that provisional ballots could not be counted unless they are cast in the correct precinct.

Another fight in Florida involves a Democratic lawsuit challenging an order to disqualify voters. Secretary of State Glenda Hood instructed county officials to throw out registration cards from voters who do not check a box confirming they are American citizens, even if they sign an oath on the same form swearing they are citizens.

Hood maintains state and federal laws require the box to be checked. The lawsuit marks the fourth time since August that the party has taken the Florida secretary of state to court.

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