Ballot Watch: Despite Odds, Election Lawsuits Continue

The nearer the election, the longer the odds for lawsuits challenging the rights of voters to cast their ballots early -- or to cast them at all. But that hasn't stopped political operatives (mostly Republicans) from continuing to beat on courthouse doors for a decision that goes their way. Now they're dragging the feds into it, while keeping flagging suits on life support.

Here's the latest:

A fight Justice might rather avoid. The Justice Department has evoked memories of a recent scandal -- and possibly violated its own guidelines -- by slipping into Ohio's struggle over mismatches between voter information and registration rolls. At the behest of House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, the White House asked Justice Friday to see whether some 200,000 newly registered voters should go to the polls before fixing discrepancies between their registration cards and state databases. Ohio's Democratic secretary of state says the discrepancies are mostly typos and shouldn't stop people from voting. Republicans argue that the mismatches suggest fraud. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the GOP's challenge over the issue, but then came Boehner:

"Unless action is taken by the [Justice] Department immediately," the congressman wrote to President Bush, "There is a significant risk if not a certainty that unlawful votes will be cast and counted."

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino called the Justice Department's involvement "routine." But critics say stepping into highly partisan voting disputes is exactly what got Justice into trouble two years ago when it fired eight U.S. attorneys, largely for refusing to prosecute dubious voter-fraud cases. And as six lawyers formerly with the civil rights division said in a letter Friday, getting involved so near an election seems contrary to the department policy of delaying an investigation until after Election Day, thus avoiding interference with legitimate voting.

Indiana still not done with litigation. The Indiana Supreme Court refused Friday to get involved with the GOP's long-running lawsuit to shut down early voting in three of the state's overwhelmingly Democratic cities, leaving intact a lower-court ruling that the Lake County sites should stay open. The controversy seemed done, allowing the predominantly minority electorate in Hammond, East Chicago and Gary to continue voting early without traveling at least 45 minutes to the county seat. But on Friday, Republicans persuaded the state Court of Appeals to schedule a hearing in the case for Oct. 30. The upshot: Early voting may still be cut short -- by all of two days.

But Wisconsin is finally in the clear. A state judge slapped down a suit that might have kept countless Wisconsin voters from the polls by forcing the state's election board to reconcile mismatches between the voters' registration cards and information in state databases. Yes, it's the same issue that won't go away in Ohio. Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen (John McCain's state co-chairman) filed the suit Sept. 10 along with the Republican Party, and he says he'll appeal. But it's unlikely an appeals court will rule before voters can go to the polls Nov. 4. And the lower-court judge was pretty clear in her decision: The mismatches alone can't stop anyone from voting.

While Florida can't decide what to do. Secretary of State Kurt Browning is taking a hard line on Florida's "no match, no vote" law -- and some elections officials are thumbing their noses. He says voters must visit election offices to clear up any discrepancies between their registration forms and state databases (there's that issue again), or they won't be allowed to cast a regular ballot on Election Day.

They can cast provisional ballots, which won't count unless the voter resolves mismatches by Nov. 6.

But several county officials have mutinied, saying they will accept regular ballots from voters who can confirm their identities at the polls. "I can't imagine them having to go to my office on Election Day," Volusia County elections supervisor Ann McFall told the Tampa Tribune, "which could be as far as 40 miles." So there.

Voting Machines Vulnerable in Pennsylvania. Fifty-four of 67 counties in the Keystone State still use those pesky touch-screen voting machines that don't provide a paper record and that critics say break down too easily. So the Pennsylvania NAACP and other voting-rights advocates have sued state elections officials, hoping to force them to provide paper ballots at any precinct where half the machines have failed. The current rule says no paper ballots until all the machines are kaput. That's too late, argues the NAACP, not to mention unconstitutional: It puts an undue burden on voters who might have to wait hours in line for the paper ballots. A decision is expected any day.