Election Day Voting Suits Hit Courts in Pennsylvania, New Jersey

Tuesday, 06 Nov 2012 07:22 PM

 

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People outside a polling place near Pittsburgh were barred from asking voters for ID, a New Jersey judge was asked to extend deadlines for victims of Hurricane Sandy and an Ohio congressional candidate lost a bid to bar electronic vote machines he deemed at risk of tampering.

A Philadelphia judge even ordered that a mural of President Barack Obama at an elementary school be covered up.

These were just a few of a series of Election Day cases lodged in courts across the country today as voting in the presidential contest headed toward its denouement. Voter ID laws were the source of the majority of complaints, said Barbara Arnwine, executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

A hotline set up by voter rights advocacy groups had more than 71,000 calls, she said. Most came from California, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Texas, Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio, with “trend lines” showing major voter confusion where there are voter ID rules. Pennsylvania is one of nine states that passed laws requiring voters show state-issued ID. Seventeen states passed laws requiring voters to present some kind of photo ID. On Oct. 2, a Pennsylvania judge barred officials from requiring ID to vote, though they are allowed to ask for it.

Pennsylvania voters have complained of being denied the right to vote in Bucks and Delaware counties because they didn’t have government-issued ID, Arnwine said. Others may have been secretly purged from voter rolls, she said, citing complaints by voters being turned away from precincts they’ve voted at before because they are no longer listed.

Voter Identification

Today, Democrats in Pennsylvania complained of people outside polls in the Pittsburgh area harassing prospective voters by seeking identification.

“Individuals outside of the polls are prohibited from questioning, obstructing, interrogating or asking about any form of identification and/or demanding any form of identification from any prospective voter,” Judge Guido DeAngelis said today, according to a stamped copy of the ruling provided by a Democratic Party lawyer. The order couldn’t be immediately confirmed in court records.

Valerie Caras, a spokeswoman for the state Republican Party, didn’t return a call seeking comment on the order.

In New Jersey, the American Civil Liberties Union chapter there petitioned a judge to extend access to ballots today for people displaced by Hurricane Sandy. Alexander Shalom, an ACLU attorney, appeared in Superior Court in Newark on behalf of voters who applied to election officials by e-mail or fax machine for access to a ballot and hadn’t received a response, ACLU spokeswoman Katie Wang said in a telephone interview.

The organization wants voters to be able to use the Federal Write-in Absentee Ballot, Wang said.

Hurricane Sandy

After the storm displaced thousands of residents last week, New Jersey said that residents had until 5 p.m. today to e-mail or fax the state’s 21 county clerks for a ballot. The clerks must process those requests by Nov. 9 at noon, and voters must return their ballot that day by 8 p.m.

In Columbus, Ohio today, a Green Party candidate for one of the state’s 16 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives lost a court bid to block the use of electronic voting machines there that he claimed were susceptible to tampering.

U.S. District Judge Gregory Frost denied the request by Robert Fitrakis, who’s running in a congressional district covering parts of the city. Fitrakis alleged in court papers filed yesterday that electronic voting software contains a “back door” through which vote tallies from elections could be manipulated.

“Fitrakis has not provided actual evidence that demonstrates how this harm is a realistic possibility, much less how it is actual and imminent,” Frost held.

Pennsylvania, with 20 electoral votes, and Ohio, with 18 votes, may be central to a victory by Obama or former Massachusetts Governor Romney. Winning the election requires 270 electoral votes.

Texas, Florida

The campaign has been marked by at least two dozen lawsuits in those two states, Texas, Florida and others where Republican- dominated legislatures pushed through rules limiting voter access by measures including photo ID rules and poll hour limits.

In Hamilton County, Ohio, reports from at least four precincts included complaints by voters who said they were told they must vote provisionally because their addresses on photo IDs didn’t match voter registration, Arnwine said. She said they contacted county election officials requesting that they send an alert to all the precincts in the county that this was illegal.

“They have refused to do so despite our direct request,” she said.

In another lawsuit in Ohio, lawyers for a union and homeless coalition who sued the secretary of state over provisional ballots asked a federal judge to clarify which of those ballots would be counted. A hearing on the request is set for tomorrow in Columbus.

Provisional ballots in Ohio will be counted at public meetings held from Nov. 17 to Nov. 21, U.S. District Judge Algenon Marbley said in a court filing yesterday.

Jon Husted

Ohio Secretary of State Jon Husted, a Republican, ordered state officials Nov. 2 to reject provisional ballots unless a voter provided one form of accepted identification or returned within 10 days with the proper information. Voters themselves would have to record the form of identification they were using, as opposed to poll workers, under the directive.

Lawyers for the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless and the Service Employees International Union argued the new instructions went beyond what a federal appeals court ordered, putting the burden on voters rather than poll workers.

The groups filed an emergency motion asking the court to clarify the instructions that boards of elections should follow.

Marbley ordered Husted to respond to the filing seeking clarification by today. Ohio’s rules on counting provisional ballots don’t unfairly burden citizens casting provisional ballots in today’s election and won’t lead to improper disqualifications, the state responded today.

Marbley and the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati earlier ordered Husted to count provisional ballots that were cast in the right polling place but the wrong precinct. In urban areas, many polling places include multiple precincts.

Provisional Ballots

The union and homeless coalition had sought to expand this to votes that were miscast in any polling place, regardless of whether the right precinct was included in that location.

Marbley agreed in an Oct. 26 order, though the appeals court stayed the district court decision, preventing it from taking effect by Election Day.

The panel said the union was unlikely to succeed on its claim that failure to count all provisional ballots violated the U.S. Constitution.

Provisional ballots are usually cast when a voter’s credentials are challenged or inadequate and counted after the polls close. Ohio allows voters to provide identification within 10 days after the election to validate the provisional ballot.

Voters not on election rolls because of clerical or other errors will also cast provisional ballots. Provisional ballots are counted if the voter is later verified as eligible.

Marbley is unlikely to decide the issue at tomorrow’s hearing, said Donita Judge, an attorney for the Advancement Project, a voters’ advocacy group. The ruling would be issued “probably by the end of the week,” she said in an interview. “It will be well in advance” of Nov. 17, when counting of provisional ballots begins, she said.

Obama Mural

And in Philadelphia, a judge today ordered a mural of Obama at an elementary school covered up after members of the state Republican party accused Democrats of trying to suppress their votes.

State Judge John Milton Younge ordered the mural hidden “in its entirety with blank paper” so that the content is invisible. The mural is painted on a wall at the Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in the Crescentville section of the city, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. It hung on a wall behind two voting booths, according to the paper.

The case is Fitrakis v. Husted, 12-cv-01015, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Ohio (Columbus).


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