Legal challenges to election already in the works
October 20, 2004
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?’ There has been such a concerted effort to beat up on the system itself that people need to step back and understand that if you destroy the very process by which your candidate gets elected, then what have you gained?”
In more than a dozen states, including the big battleground sites of Florida, Ohio, Michigan and Missouri, a series of lawsuits has been filed in the past few months. Most of the cases were brought on behalf of Democrats.
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Two of the most common legal battles are over 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. Provisional ballots – essentially replacement ballots given to voters whose names somehow get left off precinct rolls – have prompted intense fighting in states such as Ohio, Michigan and Florida.
The ACLU is monitoring election practices in several states, including Nevada, where a judge refused to reopen registration for Clark County residents whose registrations may have been destroyed by a Republican-funded group. Clark County, home to Las Vegas, is the state’s most populous county.
McDonald, of the ACLU, said all the legal activity is not a bad thing. “It heightens scrutiny, and I think that’s all well and good,” McDonald said. “I’m reassured when the court identifies a problem. It means there is a solution.”
“Filing lawsuits has been part of the election strategy since the last election,” said University of South Florida political science professor Susan MacManus, who until last year was chair of the Florida Elections Commission, appointed by Republican Gov. Jeb Bush. “Both parties have known all along there would be problems with this election, and that it would go right down to the wire.”
She added: “This is a fight to the death, and both sides are prepared to go all the way.”