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Election Day allegations could form basis for legal challenges, experts say
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- As the nation waits to see who will be the next U.S. president, charges of Election Day improprieties abound. Among them:
Allegations that some supporters of Vice President Al Gore in Palm Beach County, Florida, mistakenly cast their ballots for Reform Party candidate Patrick Buchanan.
Charges that a Missouri judge illegally ordered polling places in St. Louis to remain open past the scheduled closing time of 7 p.m.
Accusations of uncounted ballots and illegal activities by partisan groups.
Allegations of this nature surface after every election, according to political scientists and lawyers specializing in election issues, but polling problems Tuesday are coming under sharp scrutiny, particularly in the key battleground states of Florida and Missouri, because of the undecided presidential contest.
The circumstances have lead to at least one lawsuit being filed by three people in Florida as of early Thursday.
"I suppose there is always grounds for legal challenge. The issue is whether a judge will accept it," said Richard Scher, a political scientist at the University of Florida.
"Anytime you have a tight election and claims of voter confusion, you have a potential problem," said Brenda Wright, managing attorney at the National Voting Rights Institute in Boston.
"There is no one legal theory that could cover all of the possible problems that can exist at any of the thousands of polling places on Election Day," Wright said.
"It is much more likely that if there is going to be a challenge it will be based on the ins and outs of a particular state's election laws ... than some sort of broad-based federal constitutional claim," she added.
Challenges could be filed under the Constitution under very limited circumstances such as clear proof of racial discrimination at polling places, Wright said.
Federal laws bar election officials from turning away minority voters at the polls. If such violations are alleged to have occurred, lawyers could raise claims under the deprivation of equal rights, she said.
Until Florida completes a recount of all ballots Thursday -- the nation will not know who will be the next president. It remains unclear if allegations in Florida and Missouri would be investigated. Bush and Gore were neck-and-neck in both states.
On Wednesday, Gore dispatched a high-power legal team, including former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, to Florida to supervise the recount.
Bush said Wednesday the Florida recount will prove that he carried the key battleground state. He dispatched James Baker, another former secretary of state, to supervise the recount, which Florida officials said will be completed by 5 p.m. Thursday.
The Florida Elections Commission on Wednesday received telephone complaints of voter fraud, though no one has submitted written complaints needed under state law for the FEC to begin investigations, said FEC Executive Director Barbara Linthicum.
Florida law calls for punishing elections officials who are found to have violated state laws -- but does not demand that the statewide election be overturned, she said.
"You'd have to go to court and go to a judge to do something like that," Linthicum said.
A Missouri judge ordered the polls in St. Louis to be kept open for three hours beyond the scheduled closing time of 7 p.m. But an appeal judge ordered them closed at 7:45 p.m., said Kris Kobach, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
He said state law clearly states that polls should close at 7 p.m., adding that those standing in line at closing time must be allowed to vote. He said the controversy in St. Louis was over the legality of the order to extend the hours to 10 p.m.
"If they were standing in line at 7 o' clock and the polling place official told them they could not vote, then they would have a very strong case" under Missouri law, Kobach said. "But I haven't heard that that argument has been made because the polls were kept open for another 45 minutes."
Remedies available to judges range from ordering the state to give fresh ballots to voters barred from the polling place to overturning the election results in one precinct, Kobach said. No national election has ever been overturned because of voting irregularities.
The St. Louis controversy led to allegations by state Republicans that Democrats were illegally given more time to vote. St. Louis is a predominantly Democratic and minority district.
The name of Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, who died in a plane crash before the elections, remained on the ballot, with his widow agreeing to take his place in the U.S. Senate if voters were to elect Carnahan over incumbent Sen. John Ashcroft, a Republican.
Carnahan did win. A tearful Ashcroft on Wednesday conceded the election, urging his supporters not to contest the election results.
Despite recount, Bush cautiously claims victory
Federal Election Commission
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