Legal wars stirring over election 2004
Concerns about voter enfranchisement and the system's integrity have lawyers busy already.
For weeks, reports of potential trouble have been trickling in from around the country. There are the suspicious - or clearly fraudulent - signatures on voter registrations. There are the allegedly unreliable electronic voting machines, controversies over lists of ex-felons, and conflicting court rulings over provisional ballots. And, as always, there is human and mechanical error.Skip to next paragraph
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Chances are, the 2004 election will not be close enough in key states to produce a rerun of 2000, when the outcome hinged on 537 votes in Florida. But no one can rule that out, either for Florida or other battleground states. Both major parties have dusted off their copies of Bush v. Gore and "lawyered up," just in case.
There is no evidence of a broad conspiracy on anyone's part to steal the election this fall, election analysts say. But what if, on Nov. 3, there is no clear winner, and the outcome is again disputed? How will that affect faith in American democracy, bruised after the 2000 vote but not broken?
"You get a collision between people very, very concerned about enfranchising people and equal concern about maintaining the integrity of the system," says Susan MacManus, a political scientist at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "[This] looks to be the election where the two will collide with each other in a big way."
Indeed, she adds, the initial problems with early voting in Florida, which started on Monday, can be viewed positively. By spreading the election over two weeks, instead of just one day, election workers have time to sort out issues - from missing voter registrations to confusion over new machines to questions about placement of polling places - before Election Day, not during or after. Long lines, a subject of much grumbling, show how intensely voters view this election.
"I am hoping for the best, but I suspect if it is a very close election you are going to have a repeat of the anxiety of 2000," says Carlos Reyes, a member of the GOP's election legal team in Florida's Broward County, where most of the postelection chad-counting took place four years ago.
"There is some procedural clarity [this year], but I suspect not enough," he says. "And since everyone is so partisan and committed to their candidate, if there is anything - even an inkling of the issues of 2000 - they will be pressing their case."
Florida is now a chad-free zone, though some other states still use the machines that produce the little punched-out tabs from voting cards. Still, this time around, voters and poll workers should know how to use a punch card and keep the machines clear of chads. If anything, the "hanging chads" of the 2004 election could be provisional votes, a key feature of the Help America Vote Act of 2002, which aimed to improve the mechanics of US voting.
Provisional ballots are for people who show up at a polling place but don't find their name on the rolls; the validity of their registration is confirmed after the election. Already, four states have ruled on provisional ballots, with differing outcomes. In Florida, for example, the State Supreme Court ruled on Monday that such ballots can be submitted only in a voter's home precinct. In Ohio, another central battleground state, and Michigan, federal judges ruled that voters don't have to file such ballots in their home precinct.
"So if the vote comes down to a 5,000-vote difference in Ohio and there are 10,000 provisional ballots that need to be counted under one way of reading the federal law and not be counted under the other way of reading the federal law, it is going to be a big mess," says Richard Hasen, an election law expert and law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.