Ballot Battle Popping in Indiana

When it comes to fierce and furious battles between the security of the ballot and the eligibility of voters, Lake County, Ind., is a microcosm of the nation.

A month before the presidential election, Democrats and Republicans are facing off in the county, accusing each other of tainting the early-voting process. Indiana law allows citizens to register an absentee ballot by mail or in person.

A federal judge today will hear Democrats' claims that Republicans are trying to suppress minority votes in cities favoring their candidate, Sen. Barack Obama.

Republicans, meanwhile, charge outside of court that Democrats are filing false voter applications and trying to register dead people.

Allegations of Voter Suppression

Both sides will meet today at the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Indiana, where the judge will consider whether remote early-voting centers can be opened in northern Indiana cities that heavily favor Obama.

The controversy began last September when the Democrat-controlled election board in Lake County voted 3 to 2 to open additional voting places for early in-person votes in three cities with predominately minority voters.

The two Republicans on the board voted against the measure, arguing that in-person voting in the town's county seat, Crown Point, was sufficient. Crown Point is predominately white.

Upon winning the vote, the election board began plans to open voting offices in Hammond, East Chicago and Gary. Some residents there praised the vote, saying that they had wanted to vote absentee in person but felt hindered from doing so because Crown Point was 45 minutes to an hour away.

Some voters prefer to vote absentee in person because once you are at the voting center, there is less of a chance of making an error that cannot be corrected because there is someone on hand to help.

Furious Republicans went to state court and won a temporary restraining order against opening the voting places, arguing that state law requires a board to unanimously approve any satellite voting locations.

But Lake County Democratic Party Chairman Rudy Clay argues that the vote didn't need to be unanimous, saying, "The vote has to be unanimous in satellite offices, but the law specifically says you can open the centers in clerk's offices. That is what we want to do. If not, the people in the north end of the county will be disenfranchised."

Forty percent of the county's population lives in Hammond, East Chicago and Gary.

Democrats immediately filed a claim in the federal court that will be heard today, ratcheting up the stakes and alleging voter disenfranchisement, a violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.

In court filings, Democrats accuse Republicans of "compelling the Lake County Board of Elections to open early-voting locations only in predominately white parts of Lake County and to shutter early-voting locations that had previously been open in predominately minority parts of Lake County."

Republicans had no objection to the remote offices being opened during the state's Democratic primary.

The judge will have to sort out the issues. Lawyers from Chicago and Indianapolis have been brought in to represent the various parties.

Voter Fraud

Republicans say they believe the hearing camouflages the real problem: voter fraud.

"They are trying to make this a racial issue," says John Curley, chairman of the Lake County Republicans. "Meanwhile, the voting activist group ACORN is bringing in massive amounts of registrations that are mostly phony."

The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, which works to register low-income people, told the Associated Press in Connecticut that such complaints are part of a coordinated effort by Republicans to discredit its voter registration drives across the nation.

But Curley believes the federal litigation distracts from the issue of voter fraud that has plagued his county before.

He points to hundreds of voter registration forms that have arrived in the mail, which he claims are "mostly fraudulent."

One application was delivered in August and signed by a Jimmy Johns of 10839 Broadway. The application is signed and dated, but calls to the phone number listed on the application reveal that it is for a Jimmy Johns restaurant in Crown Point.

A waiter at the restaurant said there was no Jimmy Johns at that address, adding that "It's a huge chain of restaurants."

Curley also provided an application for one Levy McIntosh of Gary, Ind. He said McIntosh is dead and provided a reporter with the death certificate on file with the same address listed on the voter application.

The date of birth on the two different forms varies by two years.

"More states are offering absentee balloting now," says Terri Ennis, a senior fellow of election law at Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University.

"It's in response to the inconvenience of 2004 with long lines," she says. "It's more convenient."

But since the landmark Bush v. Gore case transformed the 2000 presidential election, there has been an increase in the use of litigation to attempt to affect the outcome of elections.

"On the one hand, it's good to do this litigation as far in advance of the election as possible," Ennis says. "Every piece of election litigation always boils down to access versus fraud prevention."