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Pre-Election Legal Battles Target Voting Rules

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Pre-Election Legal Battles Target Voting Rules

Elections

Pre-Election Legal Battles Target Voting Rules

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In the end, the election belongs to the people - or more precisely, the people who are allowed to vote and who actually do it.

A flood of new laws in many states affects the rules about everything from voter identification to early voting. Many of the rules are being challenged in court, and some cases could drag on until Election Day or beyond.

The outcomes could affect the results, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: Eight a.m. this past Monday, and 60 protesters have gathered outside the secretary of state's office in Columbus, Ohio.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS)

FESSLER: They're here to protest the state's decision to limit early voting hours this fall. A local pastor addresses the crowd of activists, who are angered by a local Republican's comment that the voting system shouldn't have to accommodate, quote, "the urban - read African-American - voter turnout machine."

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is unconscionable. This is reprehensible.

(APPLAUSE)

FESSLER: Another day, another voting dispute. Across the country, hundreds of voting law changes have been enacted in the past two years, and it's led to a landslide of litigation. Last week, a Pennsylvania judge rejected an effort to stop that state's new voter ID law from going into effect. And a federal panel blocked Florida's plan to limit early voting hours. Another court is expected to rule on a Texas ID law any day now. And those are just some of the highlights.

EDWARD FOLEY: If there is going to be lawsuits, it's better to have them early rather than later.

FESSLER: Edward Foley is an election expert at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law. He recalls the chaos of the 2000 presidential election, and says it's better to work out the kinks now, before the ballots are cast. This year, Foley is watching Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania, where the legal battles are especially intense.

FOLEY: I think everybody knows that they are potential swing states in the presidential election. And the lawyers know that, and so they know which states might matter the most and where the voting rules might really make a difference.

FESSLER: Which is why the Obama campaign is suing Ohio for its cut in early voting hours. Early voters tend to be Democrats. Foley says another case is also worth watching. Labor groups are challenging an Ohio law that would prevent a voter's ballot from counting if a poll worker sends the person to the wrong precinct. It sounds arcane, but Foley says 14,000 Ohio votes weren't counted in 2008 for a similar reason.

FOLEY: If Ohio is where the margin of victory is, you know, a thousand, 2,000, 3,000, there's going to be a fight over those ballots.

FESSLER: A decision is expected soon. Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center for Justice in New York is also following legal challenges to efforts in Florida, Iowa and other states to remove noncitizens from the registration rolls. Her group argues that it's unfair to do that so close to an election, when mistakes can easily be made.

WENDY WEISER: Many of these new laws are really just not reasonable election regulations, but rather more illegitimate attempts by politicians to manipulate the rules of elections for their own benefit.

FESSLER: Of course, the laws' sponsors argue just the opposite in court, that the laws are needed to make sure voting is fair and free of fraud. Nowhere is that fight more intense than in the debate over requirements that voters show photo ID at the polls. Advocacy groups say voter fraud is rare, and that hundreds of thousands of people - especially minorities and the elderly - lack the required ID. A judge rejected that claim in Pennsylvania, but Wendy Weiser is undeterred.

WEISER: Even if only a fraction of those people end up not being able to vote or not being able to obtain ID in time for the election, that could be enough to swing an election.

FESSLER: So the Pennsylvania case is now under appeal. So, too, is a decision by a Wisconsin judge declaring that state's new voter ID law unconstitutional. A lot of things are still up in the air, but liberal advocacy groups think they're doing pretty well in court so far. Those pushing new laws in the name of election integrity disagree.

HANS VON SPAKOVKSY: Oh no, no. People that are in favor of election integrity are winning.

FESSLER: Hans Von Spakovksy of the Heritage Foundation is a leading advocate of voter ID. He says he's very encouraged by the Pennsylvania decision and earlier ones upholding ID laws in Indiana and Georgia. He sees a winning streak ahead.

SPAKOVKSY: Because when it actually comes to providing evidence that these laws are somehow discriminatory, they're unable to do so, because they're not discriminatory.

FESSLER: He notes that the even the lead plaintiff in the Pennsylvania case, a 93-year-old Philadelphia woman, was able to get her photo ID the day after the judge ruled. But that state case is hardly the final word. The Department of Justice is investigating whether Pennsylvania's law violates the federal Voting Rights Act. Stay tuned. That too could end up in court. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.

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