Thursday, October 16, 2008

Massive voting fight appealed to Supreme Court

Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to step into a high-stakes fight over 200,000 Ohio voters' registrations, the AP and the New York Times report.

This battle, building for the past week, has become the ominous sequel to Ohio's 2004 voting controversies. Brunner says thousands of people could lose their votes. Republicans say she hasn't done her part to test the registrations for fraud. (See Brunner's press release on the case and the GOP's statement.)

Here's the problem. A 2002 federal law says states have to match new voter registrations and changes of address with state driver's license records. But what happens when there's no match? The law doesn't say. Neither has Brunner or her predecessor. Some Ohio counties double-check registrations that do not match up, some don't.

Republicans sued, and got the federal courts to order Brunner to give the counties an easier-to-use list of mismatches. They point to small numbers of duplicate registrations filed by ACORN to say the 200,000 mismatches need serious vetting. But they concede there are lots of reasons the records might not match, such as voters or data-entry workers messing up one digit in a license number.

What happens next, we don't know. Brunner says she doesn't want these voters to have to use provisional ballots -- which get scrutinized after Election Day and fought over if the election is close. (About one in five provisional votes are usually rejected.) A top Republican suggests that having all 200,000 people vote provisionally isn't a bad idea. But that's a number so big, it could throw any half-way close election result into the courts. (Bush won Ohio by 120,000 votes in 2004; 150,000 provisional ballots were cast then.)

Brunner will issue a directive soon, and the Republicans may well take that to court too. The Republicans will shout "voter fraud," the Democrats "vote suppression," and we're in for a battle as intense as 2004's over who gets to have their vote counted.

That year, Republicans filed mass challenges to voters' eligibility in several counties (they were struck down by a judge). But this year's deadline for filing direct challenges passed yesterday. Instead, we have this lawsuit, which makes the county boards' jobs much more complicated less than three weeks before Election Day.

This may make voting harder for many people who've either registered to vote or changed their registration this year. If it does, I'll write about what you can to do protect your vote.

Update, Fri. 10/17: Dahlia Lithwick of Slate argues that the Republican attacks on ACORN are intended to build support for efforts to disenfranchise voters.

(Caption: Ohio Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner at the City Club of Cleveland on Oct. 8.)

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