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Ballot disputes could tip balance in tight presidential race
As Americans go the polls amid voting-rights controversies in key states, some say the tight presidential race could turn into a legal showdown like that in Florida 12 years ago.
CINCINNATI — Twelve years after voting problems delayed the 2000 presidential election results, Ohio — possibly the most pivotal state on the political map — sits at the center of a dispute that once again could put the outcome in limbo for weeks.
And in Florida, ground zero 12 years ago in the debate over the counting of disputed ballots, a sense of calm on Monday settled over the election sites set up for voters to cast absentee ballots, after a ruckus on Sunday when officials temporarily shut down a site because of the long lines and hours-long waits.
Tempers flared, and people chanted and banged on the windows before officials eventually apologized and allowed voting to resume.
Persistent reports of robocalls incorrectly telling voters they can cast ballots over the phone and fears of aggressive challenges by monitors at polling places threaten to mar Election Day in many key states, voting-rights advocates said Monday.
The hoax phone calls, some of which involve live callers, continued to crop up in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida, primarily among African-American voters, said Barbara Arnwine of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The group has mounted a counteroffensive of tens of thousands of calls reminding voters they can't cast ballots over the phone.
"That is really dirty," said Arnwine, who added that the callers' identities remain a mystery. "It's a very sophisticated operation and it's very widespread, and it's very troubling to us."
Voting-rights advocates pointed with particular concern to the tea-party-linked True the Vote organization, which has pledged to dispatch thousands of monitors to polling places to guard against potential voter fraud.
The Justice Department will have at least 780 observers at key polling places in 23 states to ensure compliance with the 1965 Voting Rights Act and look into any allegations of voter fraud.
The last-minute telephone tactics are only the latest in months of legal and political battles. At issue have been more restrictive voter-ID and other laws, mostly fruitless hunts for supposedly ineligible people on voting rolls in many states, and sustained claims that African-American and Hispanic voters are being targeted for intimidation and suppression.
Many of these issues could resurface in the courts after Tuesday, particularly if the presidential race is too close to call or heads for a recount in states such as Ohio or Florida.
It is in Ohio, where polls show the race between President Obama and Mitt Romney is tight, where a key dispute is brewing. It centers on an emergency motion from a labor union and homeless-advocacy group asking a federal court to clarify whether Ohio voters who cast provisional ballots — or the workers who process them — are responsible for incomplete or missing identification information on those ballots.
The ruling, from U.S. District Court Judge Algenon Marbley, will not come in time for Election Day. But he is expected to decide the case by Nov. 17, when Ohio counts provisional ballots.
The case is the result of Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted's order last week that county elections officials should not accept provisional ballots if they include incomplete information on the type of identification the voter used to obtain the ballot.
At a hearing Monday, Marbley asked for oral arguments from Husted's office on Wednesday and for replies on Thursday from the plaintiffs, the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and the Service Employees International Union Local 1199.
They contend that Husted's directive violates a recent court decision on provisional ballots and is contrary to statements made by Husted's legal team at an Oct. 24 hearing. In their filing, the attorneys say the responsibility for writing down a voter's form of identification "unambiguously rests squarely with the poll worker under Ohio governing statutes."
Provisional ballots are provided at polling places to voters who cannot verify their identities, or whose names may not appear on the list of registered voters. If voters' information on the provisional ballots can be verified, those ballots are counted after the election.
In 2008, more than 200,000 provisional ballots were cast in Ohio. Experts say more than 300,000 could be cast in this election.
"If the margin of victory for either candidate is less than the outstanding number of provisional ballots, we won't actually know who won Ohio and perhaps the presidency until Nov. 17," said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law.
Ohio's system for verifying registered voters has also come under fire after 33,000 applicants for absentee ballots were wrongfully denied their requests. They were told that they were not registered to vote when, in fact, they were.
State officials blamed the oversights on a data-sharing problem with the state Department of Motor Vehicles.
Last week, a state voter-education organization notified Husted's office that nearly 900 voters in the Cleveland area and an estimated 6,000 statewide may have been denied absentee ballots because of incomplete data checks by local elections officials.
In response, Husted sent a separate directive last week urging county election boards to try "at least one (of four) additional search criteria" if an applicant's name didn't appear on the list of registered voters.
While much of the focus is on Ohio, the result could also come down to several other highly contested states, each with its own set of rules for counting or recounting votes.
Colorado, Florida and Pennsylvania automatically recount votes if the margin of victory is 0.5 percentage points or less. In Iowa, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin, candidates can request a recount at modest or no cost, according to a survey published last week by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
Although litigation could delay any recount, as it did in Florida in 2000, most require the process to be completed more quickly than it is done in Ohio. Florida, for example, must finish a recount within 12 days of the general election.
A recount would put into play tens of thousands of provisional ballots in Florida, which, like Ohio, does not begin counting such ballots until after Election Day.
Rejected absentee ballots — which typically result from signatures that do not match — also have been an issue in Florida. Counting absentee ballots in Florida can take time because ballots from overseas or from members of the military are counted for several days after Election Day, though they must be postmarked by Nov. 6.
Early voting has been a focus of bitter partisan contention in Florida. Last year, the GOP-controlled Legislature cut the period available for early voting from a maximum of 14 days to eight days. Republican Gov. Rick Scott rebuffed Democratic requests that he use his emergency authority to extend early balloting.
Overall, 4.4 million Floridians had voted early as of Monday. Registered Democrats comprised 42.6 percent of the vote, and Republicans 39.5 percent, giving Obama an apparent edge. His early-vote advantage, however, is considerably behind his 2008 pace.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.