As many as 200,000 votes in the pivotal state of Ohio could be at stake in a legal battle between Republicans and Secretary of State Jennifer Brunner, and Ohio officials have appealed to the Supreme Court to block efforts to turn aside a lower court order to alter procedures to check new voter registrations.
The battleground state already has become the setting for a series of lawsuits over voter eligibility. About 660,000 new voters have registered since January with an edge to Democrats.
Ohio's attorney general filed an emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court late Wednesday night on behalf of Brunner, a Democrat. It contends that upholding a Tuesday decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit would create havoc on Election Day and cause many voters to cast "provisional" ballots that may or may not ultimately be tallied depending on judgments by local elections boards.
Brunner's request asks the Supreme Court to put a hold on a federal judge's order to take steps making it easier for counties to verify a voter's registration information when it does not match other records.
The Ohio officials argued in their appeal that current efforts to validate registrations are sufficient and that a change in procedures now would create problems.
Brunner "and county boards of elections have vitally important jobs to do in preparing Ohio for this historic election," the appeal states. "In close coordination with one another, they are taking numerous steps to verify the accuracy of the voter registration lists, to confirm voters' eligibility, and to prevent various forms of fraud in the election." If the provisional ballot system is implemented, according to the appeal, "mismatches may well be used at the county level unnecessarily to challenge fully qualified voters and severely disrupt the voting process."
Officials said today that they thought at least 200,000 voters might have to use such provisional ballots.
The Ohio appeal went directly to Justice John Paul Stevens, who handles emergency matters from the 6th Circuit. Stevens could act without asking the Ohio GOP to respond or could wait for a response. He also has the option to act alone or ask the rest of the court to share in a decision.
The Ohio Republicans contend the state system for verifying voter registration information is difficult for local officials to use in gleaning lists of individuals whose information contains a discrepancy. Those voters could be challenged about their eligibility to cast a regular ballot Nov. 4 and receive a provisional ballot instead that would be counted only if a voter's eligibility later was established.
State Republican Party Deputy Chairman Kevin DeWine said the Supreme Court appeal was "stunning in its attempt to defy the law."
The 6th Circuit on Tuesday had directed Brunner to give local elections officials ready and direct access by tomorrow to computerized lists of new voters whose registrations do not match state driver records or Social Security information. A 2002 federal law required states to create a statewide database of voter registration information and to verify new voter information by crossmatching it with the other public records.
Ohio counties do not have an easy way to view their mismatches in the current system, court testimony had shown.
Brunner had said adapting Ohio's voter registration system to accomplish that change would require a few days of work on software programming at a time when a surge of voter registrations also are arriving.
Yet her office had indicated it would comply.
In his statement, DeWine did not indicate what legal actions the state Republican Party would take. But he blamed Brunner for the problems.
"Jennifer Brunner dropped a bombshell on Wednesday in revealing that as many as 200,000 registrations contain bad information, and she's arrogantly fighting every effort to validate these questionable forms," he said. "She apparently lied to the media on Wednesday when her office vowed to comply with the district court's order.
"It's time to stop wasting valuable tax dollars and start fulfilling her legal obligations. No one is suggesting any qualified voter should be denied a ballot in this election, but Ohioans want to know that we've taken every step to eliminate a fraudulent registration from becoming a fraudulent vote."
The Republican Party has raised alarms about voter registration drives in Ohio and other states by ACORN, an advocacy group for low-income people. Some registration cards the group submitted in Ohio contained bogus names, incorrect addresses and duplications. The extent of the problem is under review by several counties.
The problems that have arisen, the Ohio GOP said, drive their interest in having county elections boards get easier access to mismatched voter records to separate data errors from fraudulent files.
However Democrats, including the Obama campaign's chief counsel, Bob Bauer, said this week that the protests over ACORN were an attempt to winnow voter rolls in states where Republicans feel threatened and to discourage new voters from casting ballots.