They sued early and often. Voting-rights advocates, along with the U.S. Department of Justice and some political party officials, tackled potential electoral problems early this election year. Judges blocked stringent voter ID laws, lifted registration restrictions and rejected limits on early voting. As a result, Election Day 2012 escaped the legal dramas of the past. While some local skirmishes landed in court, no litigation clouded President Barack Obama’s victory on Tuesday over Republican challenger Mitt Romney. But courtroom wars over the franchise are far from over.
Some voter-identification laws were put on hold only for this election. More significantly, the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to consider major disputes – from Arizona and Alabama – at the heart of the right to vote.
“There’s now going to be a battle royale at the Supreme Court,” said Michael Waldman, president of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. The center was one of the groups taking the lead on recent litigation, including on behalf of the League of Women Voters in Florida against restrictions on third-party groups that register voters.
Voting rights advocates have been vigilant in trying to halt practices that could turn away legitimate voters or toss out good ballots, especially since the disputed Florida presidential election of 2000 and the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Bush v. Gore. Lawyers for political parties, seeing how elections can come down to a mere hundred votes, have jockeyed for any electoral advantage.
Ohio State University law professor Edward Foley, an election law specialist, said advocates have learned the lessons of past disputed races, including the months-long recount fight arising from the 2008 U.S. Senate election in Minnesota. Democrat Al Franken eventually was declared the winner, by 312 votes, over Republican Norm Coleman.
Foley said litigation this year, notably in Ohio and focused on early-voting rules and provisional ballots, began earlier than in previous cycles. “In some ways it’s analogous to the military,” he said. “Lawyers are preparing for the last war and what the next war would be.”