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Voter ID lawsuits could delay election results again

By Halimah Abdullah, CNN
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 7, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Political experts say 2012 could be a repeat of 2000
  • Voting lawsuits in battlegrounds could lead to protracted legal sagas
  • Partisan voting laws are at the root of the fight

Washington (CNN) -- Partisan legal showdowns in battleground states over a spate of new voting laws could turn the 2012 elections into a repeat of the 2000 presidential vote recount saga, political experts say.

"Whenever you change the rules by enacting new laws, it triggers a round of litigation. I don't think we'll see an end to this anytime soon," said Dan Tokaji, an Ohio State University law professor. "It could come down to the states counting of absentee ballots. ... We could see a replay of the 2000 election, where we don't have a winner for weeks."

This year's fight has gotten ugly, especially in the hotly contested states of Florida and Pennsylvania, where there are high-profile fights over new voter identification laws, and Ohio, where President Barack Obama's and Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's campaigns are locked in a showdown over early voting.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a legal think tank at the New York University School of Law that has criticized the increase in what it sees as prohibitive voting laws, 16 states have passed measures "that have the potential to impact the 2012 election."

The endgame, political experts say, is all about parties crafting laws to help ensure that their side wins.

In Ohio, for example, the GOP-led state legislature recently nixed the three-day early voting window before Election Day for everyone but members of the military and people living overseas.

Minority voters typically turn out in higher numbers during early voting, political experts say.

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According to CNN national exit polling data, those who served in the military voted 54% for Republican Sen. John McCain and 44% for Obama in the 2008 election.

The Obama team cried foul over the law change and sued. A court is expected to rule before the elections.

Last month, the Justice Department launched a formal investigation into whether Pennsylvania's voter law — another Republican-led effort — requiring a photo ID discriminates against minorities, and the agency demanded that state elections officials produce detailed documents within 30 days.

Republicans are "trying to suppress the vote for partisan gain," said Judith Browne Dianis, a voting rights attorney and co-director of Advancement Project, a civil rights organization representing 38 plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania's voter ID law.

"Pennsylvania has a clear motive to suppress the vote in order to have Mitt Romney win," Dianis said.

Republican lawmakers in the states with some of the toughest voter identification laws say they're needed to prevent voter fraud.

In Florida, the Department of Justice is suing the state because it says the controversial purge of voters identified as "non-eligible" unfairly targets minorities. Republican Gov. Rick Scott locked horns with the Obama administration in a high-profile fight to obtain access to a federal citizenship database to help carry out the purge.

"I have an obligation to enforce the laws of our land. You don't get to vote in Florida if you're a non-U.S. citizen," the Republican governor said recently on CNN's "Starting Point."

The increased scrutiny of and, by extension, heightened level of partisan fighting over voting laws is a direct result of the Florida recount, said Jan Baran, a campaign and elections lawyer. In the 12 years since a razor-thin margin of votes in Florida delayed the official declaration of a winner in the 2000 presidential election, states and campaigns have closely re-examined voting laws and procedures.

Many states updated their voting machines to ensure that ballots are more properly counted. Congress created the Election Assistance Administration, which is charged with helping states and cities meet federal guidelines on voting practices.

"And for a long time, we've had a trend of liberalizing and increasing the amount of ways folks can vote. In several places, it goes back several weeks," Baran said. "That's all a function of making it easier for folks to vote. While that's making it easier to have voting, it raises concerns about the integrity of the voting process and whether it invites fraud. And that's what all the fighting is about between the Republicans and the Democrats."

Fights like the one in Ohio.

David Axelrod, Obama's senior campaign adviser, hit back Sunday against accusations that the president's re-election team was trying to curb early voting rights for Ohio military voters and those residing overseas.

"What that lawsuit calls for is not to deprive the military of the right to vote in the final weekend of the campaign. Of course they should have that right. What that suit is about is whether the rest of Ohio should have the same right, and I think it's shameful that Gov. Romney would hide behind our servicemen and women," Axelrod said on "Fox News Sunday."

The Romney campaign called the Obama campaign's legal efforts "despicable."

"The Obama campaign may not like the early voting policy that the Ohio legislature set. This does not mean the policy is unconstitutional," said Katie Biber, general counsel for the Romney campaign, in a statement. "And it certainly does not mean that a federal court should be permitted to remake it."

CNN's Terry Frieden and Ashley Killough contributed to this report.

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