Brace Yourself: Election Overtime May Be On The Way

Armies of attorneys are ready in case there's no clear winner.

Ready at long last for Campaign '04 to end? Well, brace yourself, because we might be headed for extra innings.

In the wake of the Florida vote debacle four years ago, both campaigns have armies of attorneys at the ready should Election Day fail to produce a clear winner. And with polls showing the race a dead heat — not just nationally but in about a dozen battleground states — the chance of another overtime legal wrestling match looms large. Call it revenge of the hanging chad.

Here's a glimpse at the various issues that could derail the smooth transition from campaign to inauguration:

Provisional ballots - In an effort to ensure that no one would miss out on the chance to vote this time around, Congress mandated that states provide ballots to any registered voter who shows up at a polling place with proper I.D., even if his or her name isn't on the list officials have on-site. Later, after all the regularly cast votes have been counted, authorities will then match the name of the voter who cast that "provisional ballot" with existing voter rolls. What's unclear, however, is whether a provisional ballot voter's name must appear on the rolls in the specific precinct, town or county where he or she has registered. In Ohio and Florida, courts have ruled that provisional ballots are valid only if they are cast in the precinct where the voter is registered. A court in Michigan has ruled that provisional ballots received anywhere in the city or town where the voter lives are valid. In Iowa, the attorney general says provisional ballots count so long as they're cast in the right county. All of the above decisions are subject to further legal challenges and appeals and may have changed by the time you read this.

Hanging chads - Much of Florida now has new, ATM-style voting machines. But in Ohio (dubbed "the Florida of 2004"), 69 counties still use the old-fashioned punch-card ballots. Among the key questions officials in Florida grappled with last time around was what actually constitutes a vote on such ballots. For the record, two or three detached corners equals a valid vote in Ohio, according to the Columbus Dispatch. A single detached corner or a chad that's been dimpled? No vote.

Colorado's electoral college ballot initiative - Colorado is no Ohio or Florida, but the state does have nine electoral college votes up for grabs, and polls show Bush and Kerry deadlocked there. On the state's ballot is an initiative that immediately abolishes the winner-take-all system of allocating Colorado's electors and replaces it with a proportional system (see "Forget Florida, Colorado May Supply Election Drama This Year"). If voters approve the measure, the likely result would be the presidential contenders splitting the electors. Democrats in the state originally supported the initiative when they anticipated a Kerry defeat. Now that the Massachusetts senator is in the hunt, they've backed away. Republicans have opposed it from the start, and the initiative is being challenged in an ongoing legal suit.

Computerized voting - They were supposed to make sure the mess in Florida never recurred, but critics say the computerized voting machines that will be used by 30 percent of voters nationwide next Tuesday have problems of their own. First, most produce no paper trail for voters to prove they cast ballots. Second, they have been found to be susceptible to hackers and other security breaches. Third, they can't conduct meaningful recounts of any sort. Finally, simply by being new, the machines are likely to cause confusion among voters.

Absentee ballots - As of Tuesday, nearly one in 10 voters had already cast their ballots either through early in-person voting or absentee voting, according to an ABC News poll. The question is how many absentee votes will actually get counted. Different states have different requirements about how such ballots need to be filled out and how late they can be received in order to be valid.

Invalid voter registrations - The parties and various advocacy groups have combined to register hundreds of thousands of new voters, particularly in the battleground states. Cleveland and Philadelphia have seen the largest increases thanks to the efforts of the Democratic Party and the left-leaning America Coming Together (ACT). But Republicans charge that voter registration drives have led to registration fraud, with the names of dead or nonexistent individuals being added to the rolls. In Ohio, Republicans have challenged the validity of 35,000 new registrations from Cuyahoga County (Cleveland). That's about one half of one percent of the total Ohio voter base, but with polls showing Kerry and Bush dead even there, those votes could make the difference.

Voter intimidation - In an effort to ensure that only those properly registered take part in the election, Republicans in Ohio plan to deploy poll watchers to some 8,000 sites around the state, according to the Washington Post. Democrats have expressed concern that those volunteers will cross the line and intimidate first-time voters away from the polls — or just slow the process down so much that they get discouraged.