Tumultuous Week for Voting Rights, Confusing Week for Voters

A series of last-minute court cases and pre-election maneuvers will likely leave many voters confused about their rights as they go to the polls today. Widespread concern surrounds electronic voting and a host of voter identification requirements that could create inequities at polling centers across the country. Legal challenges to voter requirements will not be resolved until after this election cycle, so concerned groups have launched new efforts to document voter fraud and disenfranchisement of minorities, and elderly and disabled persons. The legal issues involved in court challenges in the four states below indicate the frustration and uncertainty surrounding today's election. In response, EvolveStrategies launched an online nonpartisan voter complaint system, VoterStory.org. A number of organizations have featured the VoterStory.org "widget" on their web sites to help voters to record problems they encounter at the polls. VoterStory.org also automatically refers visitors who've faced problems to voter protection organizations for intervention and support. On Nov. 3, Project Vote released two briefing papers that describe anticipated election problems in 33 jurisdictions in nine states. One report focuses on the problems of voting machines in each jurisdiction. The second report highlights potential problems based on election management problems identified currently and in recent elections. The states examined are Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, Ohio and Pennsylvania. OHIO On Nov. 1, after a confusing series of decisions on a case challenging a new law requiring voters to show proof of identification when casting a ballot, a federal judge laid out clear rules for the upcoming election in Ohio. The order in Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless v. Blackwell was a consent decree that followed 13 hours of negotiations between the unions and poverty groups that challenged Ohio's voter identification requirements and state Attorney General Jim Petro. The decision, which both sides claimed as a victory, allows people to cast provisional ballots without identification, but does not invalidate the contested law. The court's decision only applies to this election. The court ruled that all county boards of election must count absentee or provisional ballot with a voter's name, address, date of birth, and signature, even absent the provision of a driver's license number or other form of identification required by the law. Those actually present at the polls will be allowed to cast provisional ballots if they do not have identification. The provisional ballots will be counted if they meet various requirements such as verification of address with state voter rolls. (More information on the decision is available here.) The order follows a number of contradictory lower court decisions. On Oct. 26, U.S. District Court Judge Algenon Marbley agreed the law went too far when applied to absentee voting. Petro appealed the decision to the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which granted a stay on Oct. 29 and left many Ohio voters confused about the requirements for early voting. The appeals court then overturned the district court's decision on Oct. 31. Marbley arrived at the negotiated agreement on Nov. 1. MARYLAND Republican poll workers in Maryland received instructions to challenge the eligibility of voters in the final week before the election. The instructions, contained in a guide written by state Republican Party officials, are "tantamount to a suppression effort," according to one Democratic Party lawyer. The Washington Post, which obtained a copy of the guide, printed excerpts from it on Nov, 1: "Your most important duty as a poll worker is to challenge people who present themselves to vote but who are not authorized to vote." This has heightened concerns among poll workers and observers, and a fleet of Democratic lawyers have been dispatched to investigate the possibility for black disenfranchisement at the polls. Republican officials reject such suspicions. An additional disturbing development in Maryland, set for closely contested senatorial and gubernatorial races, is news that someone has been calling poll workers around the state and falsely informing them that their precinct assignment had changed. This mystery further clouds an already murky election season in Maryland. On Sep. 12, primary voters complained of widespread voting machine malfunctions. The uncertainty about in-person voting has contributed to more than 175,000 absentee ballots--a record number--being requested in the state. ARIZONA In 2004, Arizona's voters passed Proposition 200 that requires voters to present either photo identification or two forms of approved non-photo identification in order to vote. After a series of court battles, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued an injunction to stop Proposition 200 for this election cycle, forcing everyone to return to the earlier system. On Oct. 20, just two weeks before the election, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered the state to proceed with implementing Proposition 200's requirements. The court's six-page opinion in Purcell v. Gonzales did not rule on the constitutionality of Proposition 200. Instead, it found the lower court applied the wrong standard to the facts of the case, sending the case back to the federal district court for review of the law's constitutionality. On Nov. 1, a federal judge required election officials to count the number of people who do not meet the requirements of Proposition 200 and leave without voting, but would not allow other observers inside voting stations to monitor the count. Opponents of Proposition 200 wanted to have observers present at the polls to count those turned away for failing to meet the identification requirements. U.S. District Judge Roslyn Silver ordered state election officials to keep count of those who are turned away, reasoning that Arizona state law limits the number of people at polling places to prevent intimidation and harassment. Critics object to the decision saying it creates a conflict of interest, and that the officials will likely not perform the count as rigorously as their own workers. Local election officials for their part complain about the last-minute ruling for adding yet another wrinkle to their taxing responsibilities. TEXAS On. Nov. 4, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a request to prevent Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott from prosecuting people who help elderly and disabled voters cast mail-in ballots. This was a day after a federal appeals court overturned a lower court's preliminary injunction against enforcement of a law making it a crime to help another vote. Abbott will now be allowed to continue his policy of prosecuting third parties who assist others in the act of voting. Opponents of the law include the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the Texas NAACP, who contend that it is a common practice for the elderly to vote absentee and designate a person or persons to turn in the ballots for them. On Oct. 31, a federal district judge ordered Abbott to stop prosecuting Texas citizens who help their elderly and disabled neighbors to vote. After the appeals court overturned this decision, the Texas Democratic Party and affected individuals filed a petition asking the Supreme Court to intervene.
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