Voter Issues Line the Road to the Election

Analysis: As candidates reach final stretch, voter issues are rampant.

Oct. 13, 2008 — -- Ballots for ex-cons. Pleas for more voting machines. Registrations from the faked and the dead. And, yes, fears that voters will disrupt voting by wearing musical hats at the polls. You may think that Election Day is still three weeks away, but it's clearer than ever that the tumultuous process of picking our next president is far from a one-day affair.

Voters in Arizona, Ohio and a host of other states have been casting their ballots for weeks, stirring countless lawyers, elections officials and campaign operatives to seek legal injunctions, slam their opponents on conference calls and puzzle their way through the untested clauses of arcane elections codes.

With the stakes and number of voters never higher, it's a spectacle without precedent. Here are some of the highlights from last week:

Criminal Enterprise or Mudslinging Target?

Accusations of voter-registration fraud swirled around the left-leaning, get-out-the-vote group ACORN, with state and federal agents raiding its Las Vegas offices Tuesday and Republican operatives holding no less than five conference calls to link the organization with Barack Obama and accuse it of registering thousands of reportedly nonexistent, low-income (and largely Democratic) voters.

At least six states have reported receiving bogus registration forms from ACORN, but no one has yet been charged with wrongdoing. And political observers note that the GOP lobs fraud accusations at the organization almost every election cycle.

Several ACORN workers have pleaded guilty to fraud in the past, but the organization says that it's the real victim: ACORN alerts elections officials to questionable registrations (and is required by law to turn in ALL registration forms, valid or not) and seeks punishment of dishonest workers (they are paid by the hour, but evaluated on how many names they register). Meanwhile, criminal investigations of ACORN continue in Nevada and Indiana.

Early Voting Tussle

In a case that's emblematic of the political tug of war over early voting across the nation, a federal judge promises to rule today on whether early voting sites in three Indiana cities that favor Obama can stay open without violating county rules.

As ABC News' Ariane de Vogue reported, a Democratically controlled elections board decided, 3-2, in September to open the sites, giving the predominantly minority electorate in Hammond, East Chicago and Gary a place to vote early without traveling at least 45 minutes to Crown Point, the Lake County seat. The GOP argues that state law requires a unanimous vote for opening such sites, and in any case, Democrats would want them in more than just a few pro-Obama cities if the goal were really to enfranchise as many voters as possible.

From Prison to the Polling Place

States continue to struggle with when, how or even whether to let felons vote, an issue of increasing importance this year as political activists -- mostly Democrats -- push for putting more ex-cons on the rolls.

Every state except Maine and Vermont limits felon voting: 35 prevent parolees from casting a ballot, 30 bar people on probation, nine require a waiting period and two -- Kentucky and Virginia -- have almost complete prohibitions.

In Florida, more than 30,000 felons barred under state law from voting remain registered for the Nov. 4 election, according to a story Sunday in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

In other states, though, the felons are getting a raw deal: Alabama disqualifies citizens convicted of crimes of "moral turpitude." But in a list of those crimes, the governor's office includes shoplifting, animal cruelty and hundreds of other offenses that court officials say were never intended to count. Lawsuits challenging state felon-voting laws are now playing out in Alabama, Louisiana, Arizona and Tennessee.

Discrimination by Voting Machine?

A report issued Thursday finds that predominantly black precincts in Virginia, Ohio, Missouri and other battleground states have far fewer voting machines per registered voter than do nearby white precincts, a situation that voting-rights advocates fear will drive down the minority vote -- and skew the election's outcome.

In Norfolk, Va., for example, precinct 310, which is 93 percent black, has only one machine for every 451 voters, while precinct 208, which is 94 percent white, has a machine for every 231 voters, according to the Advancement Project, a voting rights group in D.C. More generally, the report says significant shortages of poll workers and other voting resources make those states unprepared for an expected increase in turnout this election.

Making a List, Checking It Twice

Purging state registration rolls is a controversial and inexact process that critics say too often strips eligible voters of their rights. On Thursday, The New York Times reported that at least six swing states had illegally dropped tens of thousands of voters from the books by engaging in essentially two forbidden practices: striking names within 90 days before the election and using Social Security data to check voters' identities.

Social Security information is a lot less accurate than the state data that officials are required to use first, and the 90-day rule keeps anyone from being stricken unless they are dead, unfit to vote or living in another state.

Also Thursday, civil rights groups sued the Georgia secretary of state in federal court for purging voters from the rolls within 90 days of the election and using a database that is not updated to show that certain people have become naturalized citizens and are now eligible to vote.

In both cases, the problem is apparently not dirty tricks but unfamiliarity with arcane voting laws. The Help America Vote Act of 2002, which was designed to streamline voting records by requiring statewide lists, seems particularly tough to figure out.

Hang On to Your Hat

And finally, Republican elections officials in Pennsylvania have sued to enforce a dress code at the polls.

The concern: Voters coming in with T-shirts or other attire that promotes their candidates might violate the law against partisan electioneering. At least four states ban campaign buttons in polling places, but in September, Pennsylvania elections authorities ruled that clothing doesn't matter, so long as voter advocacy remains "passive."

Democrats praised the ruling as a victory for free speech. But the GOP argued that it would open the door to all kinds of wild stuff. "The first thing would be a button or a shirt," Republican Party chairman Robert Gleason explained to the AP, "and maybe the next thing would be a musical hat."