Voting disputes: A perfect storm in Ohio and Florida?

There was the actual storm. Then there is the metaphorical perfect storm.

With polls showing a close presidential race, fears have risen that the integrity of Tuesday's presidential election could be thrown into doubt by either damage from super storm Sandy, which has created enormous voting challenges in New York and New Jersey, or the confluence of ballot box disputes in battleground states.

Armies of lawyers were at the ready Monday as tussles continued over voting, especially in Ohio and Florida, the two states considered most likely to throw the presidential election into an overtime ballot dispute reminiscent of the Bush-Gore race of 2000.

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David Beattie, a veteran Democratic pollster in Florida, predicted litigation in his state and Ohio whatever the outcome Tuesday.

"I would be shocked if there wasn't," he said. "Democrats will see it as precedent for how future elections are held. And Republicans will do it if Obama's elected because they have nothing to lose."

Seldom, if ever, has an election for president been preceded by so much angst over the mechanics of voting.

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"I'm 54 years old, and I've never seen an election like this," said Patrice Jones of Temple Terrace, Fla., near Tampa, who was picking up an absentee ballot Monday. She said there always seemed to be interminable lines at the early voting site near her house, as there have been at many such sites in Florida.

The lines in Florida were "a clear legacy of the effort to restrict voting this year," said Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, a nonpartisan think tank that studies voting issues. The center has been among the voting rights groups complaining that Florida was threatening the right to vote by eliminating early voting in some counties on Sundays — a popular time for African American voters — and cutting back on other hours when many voters might be free.

They said that early voting has become popular in Florida, as in other states, precisely because there are inadequate facilities for voting on election day, and voters are eager to avoid long lines then.

After a turbulent weekend featuring early-morning legal challenges by Democratic lawyers and a fracas at the Miami-Dade elections office, there were few problems reported Monday. The Broward County elections office — the only South Florida office not to open Sunday — was open and handing out absentee ballots until 5 p.m.

That decision was praised by Florida Democratic officials, whose hopes of capturing Florida's 29 electoral votes rest largely on maximizing turnout in South Florida, where early voting is popular. This year, the Republican-controlled Legislature cut the number of early voting days from 14 to eight, leading to five- and six-hour lines at some sites in Miami-Dade. Lawyers filed a federal lawsuit seeking to keep the election offices open past Saturday.

Even with the fewer days, there were 166,917 votes already in Hillsborough County by Monday afternoon — 20% more than in 2008, according to Travis Abercrombie, spokesman for the Hillsborough elections department. About 22% of the county's voters have already cast ballots, he said.

Elections officials in Florida, like those in other important swing states, were bracing for potential trouble on Tuesday from groups organized to challenge voter credentials, such as True the Vote or a local group called Tampa Vote Fair.

Rick Hasen, a law professor at UC Irvine who follows election law closely, posted on his blog Monday: "Even though Ohio is giving it a run for its money, Florida is doing whatever it can to be the next Florida."

But as Hasen suggested, Ohio was the center of considerable dispute.

The latest was over a directive issued Friday evening by Jon Husted, Ohio's Republican secretary of state. It concerned paper provisional ballots that some voters must use when their eligibility can't be verified on election day.

The directive prohibits local election boards from counting the ballots of voters who fail to list what form of ID they presented at the polls.

But state law requires the poll worker, not the voter, to list what form of ID was presented. And federal courts have ruled that Ohio must count the provisional ballots of voters when poll worker error caused their ballot information to be filled out incorrectly.

"He's shifted the poll worker's job to the voter," said Subodh Chandra, a lawyer for the groups seeking a court order to overturn that part of Husted's directive.

Voters who cast provisional ballots often support Democrats, so the party is backing the court case against Husted.

Husted spokesman Matt McClellan did not return phone messages requesting an explanation of the directive.

Weiser, of the Brennan Center, raised another concern: She said Ohio uses an error-prone method of verifying voter registration that is virtually certain to raise questions about legitimate ballots. "That could be a huge problem after election day for counting ballots," especially provisional ballots, she said.

Concerns in New York and New Jersey were more basic: Would polling places be able to open, and would voters be able to get to them?

"In both New Jersey and New York, people are facing tremendous difficulties, and for some people, it is just not going to be possible to vote," said Lawrence Norden of the Brennan Center. He said both states were making efforts to ensure that people could vote, and he praised New Jersey in particular.

While there has been a great deal of attention paid to New Jersey's emergency decision to allow voters to cast ballots by email or fax, Norden said a far more significant decision was allowing voters to cast provisional ballots in any precinct in the state, regardless of where their home precinct is located. That will help far more people, he said, because voters in the hardest-hit areas are not likely to have easy access to working computers.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, announced Monday that his state would make the same provisions for voters to cast ballots at any precinct.

There was, meanwhile, evidence that more polling places may be open than initially projected.

At the height of the storm, more than 800 polling places in New Jersey were inaccessible, but as of Monday that was down to 100 and likely to be even fewer by Tuesday, according to Ernie Landante, director of communications for the New Jersey lieutenant governor's office, which oversees elections.

"As counties relocate polling places, that number will continue to fall. We're optimistic. We're making sure every New Jersey voter who wants to can cast a provisional ballot or vote in the election," he said.

Contrary to earlier reports, New Jersey officials said they had no plans to tap the National Guard and create temporary mobile polling places.

The storm "certainly did create a disruption," Landante said, "but hopefully the disruption is little more than an inconvenience."

mitchell.landsberg@latimes.com

joseph.tanfani@latimes.com

Landsberg reported from Los Angeles and Tanfani from Tampa, Fla. Times staff writers Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Mark Z. Barabak and Michael Finnegan contributed to this report.

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